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Dies Irae The Haunting Of Rachmaninov Music Essay

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The Dies Irae theme holds substantial musical significance in many of Rachmaninovs works.  Dies Irae is a Medieval Latin plainchant, whose name translates to Day of Wrath, and whose lyrics describe chilling images of judgment day. Centuries ago it was used as a part of the Roman Catholic requiem Mass and serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death and the consequences of sin.  One of Rachmaninov's greatest representations of Dies Irae is in Rachmaninov's The Isle of the Dead.  The rest of the orchestra, placing special significance on that theme, supports every appearance of the theme; it is the thread by which the rest of the piece hangs.  Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini incorporates the Dies Irae theme as a contrast to a life-filled section, placing it in the very first variations, while it nearly ends the piece in the last variation, suggesting the immortality of the theme.  The theme implies death as an inescapable fate - one of Rachmaninov's beliefs - that incorporates both personal and musical significance.  The Symphonic Dances exists as Rachmaninov's last great composition, and still contains the Dies Irae theme that haunts most of the rest of Rachmaninov's great works.  Dies Irae appears in the very beginnings of the piece, thereby giving it center stage in the rest of its appearances in the work.  It dominates the climax and weaves into the flood of themes leading toward the finale, although the conclusion of the piece ends with a quotation of "Allelieujah."  This vanquishing of Dies Irae suggests that Rachmaninov finally comes to terms with the theme which haunted him for so long.  Rachmaninov remains as the composer with the most frequent and effective use of the Dies Irae theme in musical history.  The artful ways in which he weaves it into much of his music allows for the theme to both dominate and add dimension, which altogether creates a distinctive Rachmaninov style.  In this way, the music of Rachmaninov that contains the Dies Irae theme would lose some essential meaning if the theme did not exist in his works.

A New Flavor

Sergei Rachmaninov once said that he felt "impelled to write music without any outside considerations." He was a very sensitive man who poured his soul into his music, and immersed himself entirely in his composing, so that when he perfected a piece of music, there was a piece of himself woven into it. He never categorized music into classical, romantic, modern, or any other type. To him it was simply music and he would not stray from writing what his critics called romantic music, even though he was born 30 years before the romantic era of music ended. The messages that Rachmaninov wanted to convey were always very personal and intense, which resulted in an intricate, deeply emotional style whose flavor was distinctly Rachmaninov. Though Rachmaninov's music embodied the composer himself with little outside consideration for other music, the sound produced by his compositions was inescapably Russian. It encompassed the Russian mind, particularly the idea that fate defies all other struggles against it; fate is destiny and people could not change their fate - also a personal belief of Rachmaninov. Another common quality of much Russian music is that it is fused with an underlying feeling of doom and dread. Rachmaninov's style contained the previous aspects, while adding to many of his pieces, a single point imbedded in the music somewhere that carried no other tone than that of peace and hope.

In order to accomplish his widely beloved, sometimes harshly criticized, but regardless distinct style, Rachmaninov developed several unwavering aspects of composing. The first, which only varied very slightly in his works, was his use of minor keys. Rachmaninov used A minor, C, minor and D minor most prevalently, with A minor for a colder sound and C minor and D minor for more lush sounds. This in itself added an element of longing and sadness to his works from the moment he began composing them. Another tool he utilized very well as a pianist and composer was rhythm. The piano is capable of both percussive and lyrical sounds, and Rachmaninov succeeded at capturing both. Rhythm acted as a driving force in most pieces, adding a "constant forward momentum" (Culshaw 49). Of even greater musical significance than rhythm and key, was his essential use of recurring themes in his works.

Rachmaninov's pieces contain two distinct melodies; the first type is long, flowing melodies with "a tendency to progress by intervals of a third" (Culshaw 50). This allowed for little development, so it was more widely used in Rachmaninov's short pieces, such as his Polichinelle or his Third Symphony. If he had used this in his longer works, it would have turned overly repetitive and monotonous as opposed to a key factor in holding together a piece. The second type is a shorter, tighter melody which tends to hang around one note, as can be found in Isle of the Dead and the opening themes of the popular Second and Third piano concerti (Culshaw 50). The Second and Third piano concerti were two of his most popular works, owing to the easily recognizable melodies that drew listeners to his music.

Rachmaninov owes much of his musical success and greatness to his use of recurring themes within his works. Rachmaninov utilized the key method of recurring themes in his work to drive, tie together, and draw people to his music. Without these manifest, repetitive melodies, his works would be musically barren and would lack a purpose. The reason that Rachmaninov constantly enforces a theme within a piece is that he conveys a message through repetition, and ultimately unifies the piece. Leopold Stokowski, a famous orchestral conductor, once conducted several performances of The Isle of the Dead, a famous composition. In a letter to Rachmaninov on March 18th, 1933, he wrote that he was "so deeply impressed by [The Isle of the Dead]'s unity of style and form" (Daniel, 1982, 237-8). The reason the piece is so deeply unified is because its expression, and the constant reiteration of the expression, of somber themes, namely the Dies Irae theme.

The Ghost that Haunted Rachmaninov

The Dies Irae is a Medieval Latin plainchant, meaning Day of Wrath, whose words describe chilling images of judgment day. An English translation reveals haunting images of burning earth and dead bodies rising from the ground, all the while revealing the tremendous powers of God, the Judge. It was most widely used as part of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass and serves as a reminder of the darker side of Resurrection and as a warning to souls both saved and still lost, about the dire consequences of sin. It was widely used by composers, including Mozart, Verdi, and Rachmaninov. In past compositions by many composers, it often serves the purpose of being recognizable. Most times, composers commonly add the theme so that the listeners will recognize it and draw connections between the music and motifs of fire and death, as is Hector Berlioz's aim in his Symphonie Fantastique, Dream of a Witches Sabbath.

The Dies Irae already has enormous implications outside music, so Rachmaninov's repetitive use of the theme within his music infuses the melodies with a much greater meaning (Glen Carruthers 50). The tone of the theme is also recognizably Medieval, which gives the melodies that include the Dies Irae an ancient feel. That tone plus modern elements of Rachmaninov's style give his pieces a timeless feel, which partially explains the attraction of his audience. . A friend of the composer, musicologist Joseph Yasser, reveals that "[Rachmaninov] began to tell [Yasser] that he was then very much interested in the familiar medieval chant, Dies Irae, usually known to musicians…only by its first lines, used so often in various works as a 'death theme.'" Rachmaninov also "wished to obtain the whole music of this funeral chant… without offering a word of explanation for his keen interest in this" (Yasser). Other musicians and musicologists advocate that Rachmaninov's fascination with the death chant may be attributed to a memory of the chant in his youth, which remains in his thoughts for the rest of his life.

The Isle of the Dead

Once of the greatest representations of the Dies Irae, and therefore the use of recurring themes, in Rachmaninov's music is in The Isle of the Dead. The use of the theme in this work becomes so widespread that the Dies Irae becomes the rock on which the piece lies. It is a thread woven into the quilt that holds the quilt together. Without that thread weaving through The Isle of the Dead, Rachmaninov would have no purpose in his composition of the work. Rachmaninov originally wrote the piece after a painting by Arnold Böcklin of the same name inspired him. The painting depicts a deceased person rowing across water to a sinister, dark rocky island that towers over the water. The Isle of the Dead begins in 5/8 time, which suggests the rocking movement of waves, as was depicted in Bocklin's painting. It is also set in A minor to produce a more cutting, frigid sound. At the onset of the work, the Dies Irae motif is introduced by a French horn, and is then passed around the other brass instruments and the woodwinds. This illustrates the lone dead soul rowing to shore, as in the painting. Because the string instruments depict water, the strings in turn carry the Dies Irae theme, therefore placing it as the focus of the work. Rachmaninov varies the theme throughout the piece, changing from a dark chromatic setting to a more confident and brazen appearance in the hopeful key of E major toward the middle, and then fading away as the last notes heard in the piece. Rachmaninov rarely revealed his intentions of composing to his audience (Vincent Pallavar 20), but because of the persistent use of the Dies Irae in The Isle of the Dead and the way in which it is interlaced in the music, implies that it was the focus of Rachmaninov, suggesting both obvious death and subtler religious messages.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Rachmaninov, as a composer fascinated with death and gloom in his compositions, chose the Dies Irae again in one of his most highly appraised works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In the course of the 24 variations, it carries again the same message, one of death and the ultimate terror of Judgment Day, which adds incredible depth to the music, along with the famous Paganini theme. That theme is the most famous theme that Rachmaninov ever wrote (Pallavar 26), while the Dies Irae theme is the most prevalent (though not original) theme that Rachmaninov uses throughout his works. These two themes of massive importance make the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini one of the most well-known, well-liked, and well-criticized works of Rachmaninov. The direct quotations of the Dies Irae theme, in four early variations and again in the finale (Pallavar 26) suggest an immortality of the theme, as it is both introduced early and ends the entire work. The 8th variation brings in a transfiguration of Dies Irae of A-G#-A-E, as opposed to the traditional C-B-C-A sequence of the theme. The 9th variation does not offer a direct quote of the Dies Irae theme, although the mood and structure of this variation are based on the Dies Irae-infused 8th variation. The 19th variation virtuously gushes the Paganini theme, the Dies Irae theme, and the sounds of bells - another favorite sound of Rachmaninov - to emphasize the importance of those three musical themes. The Paganini theme prevails in the 23rd movement but the Dies Irae theme sneaks into and soon dominates the 24th and last variation, beginning with a subtle inversion which suddenly flies to an orchestral outburst of the theme, and ends the piece, with the Dies Irae theme as the "lasting memory of the work" (Pallavar 27). Rachmaninov and his friend, Mikhail Fokine, produced a ballet three years after the composition of the Rhapsody, with the Rhapsody as the score, and the magical life of Paganini as the focus. They both agreed that the Dies Irae theme represented the Evil Spirit, and that Paganini had sold his soul to the devil. The fact that Rachmaninov and Fokine place the Dies Irae as the soul of the ballet music shows the theme's profound implications, and Rachmaninov's returning fascination with the theme. The musical significance of the Dies Irae theme is great in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, as Rachmaninov places it within the piece in such a way that it becomes core of the music, and the Rhapsody would not exist without this significant recurring theme.

The Symphonic Dances

The Symphonic Dances was Rachmaninov's last great composition, and still contained the theme of Dies Irae, which had, in the past, made his compositions both beautifully haunting and memorable; unmistakably Rachmaninov. The first shadow of the Dies Irae theme appears first as a bridge to other opening themes in the first symphonic dance, building to crest, which soon tinkles away. The second symphonic dance flows as a sinister waltz, and Dies Irae dominates the third and final symphonic dance, as it reaches a terminating and livid peak amid a cacophony of other musical ideas. The intense allegro vivace section that follows is heavily based on the Dies Irae theme. Rachmaninov believed in a special high point to all of his music, and if he didn't emphasize that certain point while playing or conducting, he believed the whole piece to be worthless and purposeless. The fact that he chooses Dies Irae as the sole foundation for his important climax illustrates the great musical significance and Rachmaninov's personal fascination with this ancient chant. After the peak of the piece, the music begins a flood toward the finale, with direct quotes of Dies Irae appearing throughout. There is one final vociferation of Dies Irae, which feels as though the piece has ended. However, it is only the Dies Irae theme that has ended, and the other main theme from the movement takes over and the conclusion is reached with a musical quotation of "Allelieujah". This embodies a triumph of life over death, as is described by Vincent Pallavar, who researches the Dies Irae theme extensively. As the Symphonic Dances are Rachmaninov's last major composition, this vanquishing of the Dies Irae theme in his music suggests that the composer at last feels peace with the theme that haunted him for so long.

The Implications

Rachmaninov remained unflinchingly true to his musical and compositional ideals throughout his life. His music varies slightly in style, as does every composer's music throughout his life. Because Rachmaninov's music disregards traditional forms and patterns, it develops an unmistakable style. An incredible piece of his style is his constant repetitive use of recurring themes both within a piece of music and between pieces of music. This is the case of the Dies Irae theme, which captivated Rachmaninov throughout his life. It is as if he were a prisoner to the theme, and its never-ending use adds dimension and depth to his works. It is the same thing for which Rachmaninov is both highly praised and bitterly criticized, as John Culshaw shows in his criticism that Rachmaninov's music contains too many "fingerprints." He also adds that "the strength of the music is to be judged by its melody," and if that is the case, it is no wonder why Rachmaninov's music leaves so many listeners in a state of rapture, whether they are hearing his music for the first time or the five hundredth time.

Rachmaninov did not write music unless he felt that he needed to express the depths of his inner sanctum. During his deep depression and irremovable writer's block, he did not write one note, as he was too far removed from himself to write. He needed an intense personal feeling about his music to be able to write it, and he would not rest until what had compelled him to write a certain piece was thoroughly expressed in musical messages throughout that certain piece. A way he accomplished this was through breathtaking melodies that, through his incredible composer's hand, haunt the listeners in the same manner that they haunted Rachmaninov himself. Perhaps the melody that haunts his pieces more effectively and more often than any other melody is the Dies Irae theme. There seems to be no end to the musical significance of Dies Irae in Rachmaninov's works.  It adds many deeper levels of understanding in a work, and the familiarity of the theme offers unity to his piece, a technique for which he was famous.  This raises questions, though, about Rachmaninov's inescapable attraction to the somber theme.  In a letter to Michael Fonkin, Rachmaninov offers some insight into his thought process of his involvement of the Dies Irae theme in his composition Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  He explained that he incorporates the devilish theme to unearth the legend of Niccolò Paganini.  Paganini's talent was so great it was rumored he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for perfection in his art.  Perhaps this mirrored Rachmaninov's yearning to create a perfect composition by infusing his fascination with Dies Irae into the legend of Paganini.  It is also used by Rachmaninov to add more somber tones, instead of inciting evil and macabre, as many composers had done before him.  This may reflect that Rachmaninov did not use it deliberately as everyone else had; rather he used it in the way in which he viewed it.  It is as if he avails the theme subconsciously, as if the Dies Irae theme is in control of him. 

Rachmaninov is also a composer fixated on sending a message through his music to his audience.  The Dies Irae theme is so frequented and sought after by his music that, whether he subconsciously or purposefully included it, it becomes crucial in transmitting Rachmaninov's message.  He is an extremely complex man, and as a composer, he has the ability to transmit that to his music.  His complex beliefs center on the inevitability of death, and while he recognizes the power and joy of life, he acknowledges the power of fate to be much greater.  That shows in his music, with the Dies Irae inevitably appearing throughout his many works.  When his music portrays life, the music is dynamic and spirited, but it nearly always ends with a restatement of a death-tinged melody, namely and most frequently, the Dies Irae.

His Legacy

            Rachmaninov allows his music to be revolutionary by being reactionary.  He paves his way into the music world by staying true to his own style and not changing it in the face of the even though the romantic era ended 30 years after he was born.  Rachmaninov is a fairly modern artist, despite his unabashedly romantic style of writing. In being born in a the modern era of music, many musical ideas, techniques, melodies, etc. were already discovered and utilized by many composers over the course of centuries. Rachmaninov takes these age-old concepts and styles them into his own innovative interpretations, thereby creating an essence of music all his own. He succeeded in taking the ancient, much-used Dies Irae, and instead of reiterating what other composers before him had done with the theme, he artfully wove it into an astonishing number of his works to add flavor, personality, depth, and profoundness. 

His success outweighed his shortcomings and many musicians now look to him for inspiration.  Popular because of his dynamic, compelling music in film scores, Danny Elfman is one of those musicians.  His repetition of the Dies Irae theme in movies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street exist as throwbacks to Rachmaninov's extensive and convincing use of the theme.  His music also displays romantic tones and sweeping lyricism on top of heavy chords, which produces the same captivating effect as Rachmaninov's music - because they utilize the same style and techniques.  Other great musicians who felt the influence of Rachmaninov include George Gershwin, Russian composer Nikolai Myaskovsky, Canadian pianist/composer Andre Mattieu, and more.


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