Beethoven started it. Followed (sort of) by Berlioz; then came Mendelssohn, Liszt and Mahler. Vaughan Williams was brave (or cheeky) enough to make his first essay one and also added the human voice to his third.
Of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies, 4 include singers (his 2nd, 3rd and 13th and 14th) and among other famous examples – though some purists would question their symphonic status – are Scriabin’s 5th Symphony (The Poem of Fire) and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.
Rachmaninoff’s contribution is as modest as Stravinsky’s and Scriabin’s, just the one. But The Bells – his setting for soloists, chorus and orchestra of a free (and then some!) translation into Russian of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe – was numbered by the composer among his personal favourites.
Here’s the first movement – Sleigh Bells:
…and here’s verse one of Poe’s original text:
Hear the sledges with the bells—
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
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