Sergei Rachmaninov fits the popular image of Russian gloom. Tall and lugubrious – Igor Stravinsky described him as “a six-and-a-half foot tall scowl” – he was much preoccupied with death. After the catastrophic reception his First Symphony received from the critics in 1895, Rachmaninov suffered intense depression which caused a writer’s block that was so dense that it took months of hypnotherapy to emerge from it. 

Arnold Böcklin's Die Toteninsel III
© Public domain

Many of Rachmaninov’s works fit the mould of that characteristic Russian brooding. All three numbered symphonies, the four piano concertos, the sonatas, the Paganini Rhapsody, the Symphonic Dances and all but three of the études-tableaux are written in the minor key. His only large-scale work to open in the major key is his choral symphony The Bells… although that plunges into C sharp minor once we reach The Mournful Iron Bells of its last movement. Even darker, though, about a third of Rachmaninov’s catalogue make use of the Dies irae plainchant motif, making it an idée fixe that spanned his entire 50-year compositional career. 

The Dies irae – which translates as “Day of Wrath” – is a medieval plainchant first incorporated into the Requiem mass in the mid-13th century. The words conjure up images of blasting trumpets, hell fire and dead bodies rising from their graves. The motif carries an ominous sense of dread, a chilling reminder of the inevitability of death and a warning against living a sinful life. Listen to the chant here:

Rachmaninov’s first experience of church music would have been when his grandmother took him to Russian Orthodox services as a boy, where he developed a life-long love of church bells, becoming a repeated feature in his compositions. He wouldn’t have encountered the Dies irae there (derived from western Catholicism) but he would have heard the hypnotic Znamenny chant of the Orthodox tradition. Though as a student at the Moscow Conservatory, and early in his conducting career, Rachmaninov certainly would have encountered the Dies irae quoted in a number of 19th-century works, usually connected to death and the supernatural.

Heading that list would be the demonic Witches’ Sabbath in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique where the brass intones the Dies irae while a diabolical orgy is danced over the hero’s grave. Consider also Mussorgsky phantasmagorical Night on Bald Mountain and Saint-Saëns’ skeletal Danse macabre, both of which reference the plainchant. Liszt’s Totentanz is a massive set of variations for piano and orchestra based on the motif, serving as a model for Rachmaninov’s own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which deploys the Dies irae in several variations. 

What did the Dies irae mean to Rachmaninov? Pianist Nikolai Lugansky suggests that it’s connected with the epoch of symbolism in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. “For Rachmaninov, the idea of death was about what happens after death. Everybody thinks about this. The existence of religion is sometimes connected with this fear of death and thoughts about death. Rachmaninov was very simple Orthodox. He never talked about these things publicly; he was not an open person. For him, it was vulgar to speak about such deep things, but in his music it appears much deeper, much wider.”

Sergei Rachmaninov
© Public domain

Despite using it throughout his career, Rachmaninov seems not to have researched the motif until much later in his life, approaching the musicologist Joseph Yasser in 1931 to request the full music of the chant which was largely known only by its first eight notes. 

After first making use of the motif in his student work Prince Rostislav, Rachmaninov then used it in his First Symphony, where it appears in one form or another in three of the four movements. Listen to the symphony’s very opening, derived from the chant, which then becomes the movement’s main theme. Consider that the original manuscript carried the biblical epigraph from Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” and one is left in no doubt about the work’s prevailing mood. 

A variation of the Dies irae appears in the second movement of the Suite no. 2 for two pianos, in the central Trio section. 

The finale of the Piano Sonata no. 1 in D minor features a tempestuous quotation of the Dies irae, which grows to a terrifying climax. 

Rachmaninov had a grim fascination with Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead, which depicts a figure clad in white being rowed across a lake towards a rocky island dominated by cypress trees. His 1908 symphonic poem depicts the boat lurching unsteadily in 5/8 time, interlaced with plenty of eerie Dies irae quotations which are passed around different instruments, growing inexorably throughout the piece. 

The Bells, Rachmaninov’s setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry as reimagined by Konstantin Balmont, the composer sets the Dies irae throughout, even in the brighter earlier poems such as the jolly Silver Sleigh Bells and Golden Wedding Bells. Each movement depicts bells symbolically linked to the four phases of life, resulting in the funereal tolling of the last movement’s iron bells. 

The Dies irae never really left Rachmaninov’s side, even after he emigrated from Russia to self-exile in the United States. The Fourth Piano Concerto was sketched out before he left his homeland, and was eventually premiered in 1926. Rachmaninov was unhappy with its long third movement, and cut over a hundred bars in his 1928 revision, making further cuts before the 1941 version we usually hear today. His revisions cut most of the Dies irae quotations, but his original version reveals them in their full demonic glory. 

There’s a demonic story linked to the Paganini Rhapsody. Legend has it that virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini gained his dizzying talent after sealing a pact with the devil. In his concert work, Rachmaninov takes Paganini’s 24th solo caprice and treats it to 24 fiendish variations, several of which openly reference the Dies irae motif.

The Dies irae features in the last movement of Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony and peppers the finale of the Symphonic Dances, his last major composition. However, at the last trump, the Dies irae theme is overpowered by the alleluia theme from the ninth movement of his a cappella masterpiece, the Vespers. Had Rachmaninov finally vanquished the spectre of the Dies irae that had haunted him all his life?