Suite No. 1 (Fantaisie-Tableaux) for Two Pianos, Op. 5
by Sergei Rachmaninoff


Sergei Rachmaninoff, one of history’s most beloved composers and towering pianists, envisioned this work as “a series of musical pictures,” hence its original title of Fantaisie-Tableaux. Interestingly enough, he dedicated it to one of his predecessors, the great Russian composer Tchaikovsky; one can hear the influence of the latter composer upon this suite, with its richly colored musical textures and sweeping, lush expressivity. Consisting of four movements inspired by poetry, each one presents a fascinating, unabashedly romantic scene juxtaposing human emotion with sounds from nature and life: rippling water, bird calls, tear droplets, and bells.

The first movement is a Barcarolle (boat song) depicting the melancholy strains of the gondolier’s serenade as the undulations of the waves symbolize the surges of love. The second movement, “The Night… the Love,” features the passions of a nocturnal tryst, accompanied by the warbling of the nightingale. The third, “Tears,” unfurls with canonic cascades of descending notes, emblematic of falling tears. The final movement, “Easter,” is at once terrifying and triumphant, with the epic tolling of Russian Orthodox church bells resounding seemingly throughout the entire earth.

Here are excerpts from the poems upon which Rachmaninoff’s intoxicating music is based:

I. Barcarolle (poem by Mikhail Lermontov)

At dusk the chill wave laps gently
Beneath the gondola's slow oar.
That song again and again, the twang of the guitar…
In the distance the old barcarolle was heard,
now melancholy, now happy…
The gondola glides through the water, and time glides over the surge of love;
The water will grow smooth again and passion will rise no more.

II. The Night … the Love ("Parisina" by Lord Byron)

It is the hour when from the boughs
The nightingale’s high note is heard;
It is the hour when lovers’ vows
Seem sweet in every whisper’d word;
And gentle winds, and waters near,
Make music to the lonely ear.

She listens — but not for the nightingale —
Though her ear expects as soft a tale.
There glides a step through the foliage thick,
And her cheek grows pale — and her heart beats quick.
There whispers a voice through the rustling leaves,
And her blush returns, and her bosom heaves:
A moment more — and they shall meet —
‘Tis past — her lover’s at her feet.

And heedless as the dead are they
Of aught around, above, beneath;
As if all else had passed away,
They only for each other breathe;
Their very sighs are full of joy
So deep, that did it not decay,
That happy madness would destroy
The hearts which feel its fiery sway.

III. Tears (poem by Fyodor Tyutchev)

Tears, human tears
You flow both early and late —
You flow unknown, you flow unseen
Inexhaustible, innumerable —
You flow like torrents of rain
In the depths of an autumn night.

IV. Easter (poem by Alexei Khomyakov)

Across the earth a mighty bell is ringing
Until all the booming air rocks like the sea
As silver thunderings sing forth the tidings
Exulting in that holy victory…

— Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe