Dark, sombre – an old man. A light arpeggio theme with a solo flute – a young woman. Two characters from a poem written by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov.
A golden cloud slept for her pleasure
All night on the breast of the gaunt rock.
During the summer of 1893, Sergey Rachmaninov composed a symphonic poems apparently inspired partly by Lermontov’s poem: The Rock, op. 7. The two quoted lines are found as an epitaph on the first published score. However later he refuted his initial idea and claimed that his piece reflected a story by the writer Anton Chekhov called “Along the way”. The old man and the woman meet on Christmas Eve in a tavern while a storm is raging outside. The man recounts his sad life, his failures, his regrets, while the woman listens with much compassion. In the morning she has to leave and the man is left behind, gradually being covered by the falling snow until he resembles a rock.
Following Liszt’s tradition
So far for that poetic story. Rachmaninov’s music follows Franz Liszt’s model of a symphonic poem as it expresses the feelings inspired by the two characters and does not try to mirror a detailed picture of what happens at the inn. Rachmaninov’s paragon Pyotr Tchaikovsky much applauded the piece when the composer performed in front of a circle of friend when he returned at the end of the summer to Moscow. Tchaikovsky thought of performing “The Rock” during a tour through Western Europe that he had scheduled for 1894. However it all came to nothing, Tchaikovsky died the same year a few weeks after that evening.
The piece saw its premiere in March 1894, today it is sometimes performed as the secondary piece of a concert, a typical performance last about a quarter of an hour. While it is one of the very first symphonic pieces that Rachmaninov wrote and published it shows already the composer’s talent. Clearly identifiable themes matching a clearly defined musical story, well exposed and developed and kept together by an overall Romantic thread. This is of importance in so far as a year later Rachmaninov would embark on the composition of his first symphony (in D Minor, op. 13).
The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra has recorded this piece along with another symphonic poems written by Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead, op. 29 and his Symphonic Dances, op. 45. A lovely record – three symphonic works from three different stages of maturity!
© Charles Thibo