Dies Irae – Day of Wrath

I played Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise at the organ some years ago, as prelude music for a church service in Maine. It was conducted by a guest minister whose mix of Liberation Theology and feminism shaped her sermon, and she did not hesitate to take shots at traditional Christianity. I was not a member of the church (organists in short supply in rural Maine made such things possible). My relationship with the regular minister, a woman also “liberated” by Marxist theology and feminism, was at best friendly.

The guest minister was pleased with my choice of prelude music; Rachmaninoff was one of her favorite composers, she told me. I wondered if she would still love the music of Rachmaninoff if she knew that he was Orthodox –  if she knew that Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 carried an inscription from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord.”

What a strange “dedication” to a musical opus! – and this the first major work of this budding Russian composer, completed in 1895. The reason for the dreadful “warning” attached to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony remains a mystery. But perhaps there is a clue in the music itself. Since music is known to communicate emotions, an asset dear to musical artists and movie and video makers, getting a hint of the motivation for the composer’s dreadful warning is not out of the question. I have listened carefully to this symphony, which is unlike any other composition by Rachmaninoff, and have found things to say about it that tie in with the theme of righteous anger, a theme that I think bears on the composer’s disordered times. My impressions, based on several auditions, follow.

I call Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 his “Anger Symphony.” Its first movement blares protest between moments of melancholy, the peaks and valleys of emotion devastating. The second suppresses the ire of the first like a lid over boiling water, ready at any moment to burst and overflow. The third movement is subdued, as one in bed with high fever, beside himself in anguish and frustration. And the final movement, after a sequence of marshaling fits and starts, ends – in what must be the most devastating climax in orchestral music – by pouring out a lava of rage, hot and hissing. I listen stunned, in awe, not only because the work is so powerful in its emotive intensity and drive, not just because it is masterfully wrought and genuinely musical, but because the rage it expresses is honest. I sense the anger of a good man terribly wronged.

No one can know, of course, just why the young Rachmaninoff chose to make such a caustic statement in his first major musical work. Such tonal anger is absent from his other compositions. Could it have been a reaction to what was happening to his country, a Russia about to come to a political boil and blow its lid? Did he see the writing on the wall for his beloved country? Was his first symphony a prophetic condemnation, in musical terms, of the political storm and enslavement about to descend on the Russian people at the bloody hands of communist revolutionists in 1905 and 1917?

Did Rachmaninoff sense that his property and money would be confiscated, that he would be forced to flee the land of his birth with his wife and children? – a country he loved turned ugly beyond recognition by Marxist ideology?

(Music of similar anguish came from Dmitri Shostakovich, a composer who did not escape Russia’s revolutionary hell and who, along with other composers, artists, and writers useful to the the communist regime, were held as assets of the state. Compelled to follow bad instructions concerning his art, Shostakovich nevertheless turned the disagreeable suggestions into a variety of successful musical ideas that probably would not otherwise have occurred to him.)

The man in exile, whose music the whole world loves, felt uprooted and melancholy the rest of his life. Rachmaninoff ended up living in America, where he found solace and the freedom to pursue his musical instincts and energies. He was a gifted pianist and conductor, as well as a composer. He was granted citizenship shortly before his death in 1943.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (Library of Congress photo)

Rachmaninoff worked his craft for a while on Long Island, New York, during a period of needed recuperation. (I am thrilled to have been living not far from him, in Brooklyn, as a child, while he worked on his Symphonic Dances.) It was Rachmaninoff’s wont to leave a special musical “signature” in his work. Somewhere in most of his compositions, in some variation of form, he imbedded the opening musical phrase of the plainchant from the Requiem Mass, Dies irae: “Day of wrath.” (With no sharps or flats, the initiating sequence is: C-B-C-A-B-G-A-A.) Was this his way of echoing in his music the injunction appended to his first symphony: “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord”?

Perhaps Rachmaninoff felt, as I do, that this divine admonition, an integral part of authentic Christian teaching, was being ignored, sneered at, laughed at. Perhaps he felt that the brutality that was descending upon his beloved country would spread across borders, rivers, and seas. Perhaps he wondered, as we must, why – choosing to be god instead of godlike – so many revel in the fall from grace.

It is clear beyond a doubt that if those still active in their old and failing Marxist games of communizing everybody – today by less bloody, more “progressive” means than in Russia, China, and wherever hammer-and-sickle revolutionaries have invaded or infiltrated – are allowed to get away with their unnatural and inhuman schemes of domination, there will be no place on earth for anyone to be or relocate where they will be free to pursue their talents, unhampered by a domineering state, a freedom requisite to the uplift and enrichment of human society. Were he alive today, Rachmaninoff would be horrified at what became of the country he adopted because of its freedom from political tyranny.

That millions have sacrificed and paid with their blood and with their lives to keep America free from tyranny must be forever remembered. And it must never be forgotten that America is a nation under God. The significance of such enormous sacrifice and sacred commitment obliges every American to keep our country out of the hands of those who hate it and would destroy it.

Anthony J. DeBlasi (a veteran) studied music under Robert L. Sanders and Maurice Lieberman at Brooklyn College.

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