Scenes from amongst the lilacs (and a bit of Rachmaninoff!)

The warm months of the year, for us, tend to be bookended by two specific festivals: the Rochester Lilac Festival in May, and the Ithaca Applefest in October. Lots of stuff happens in between, but those are the markers of “outdoor stuff” season. So, yesterday we were off for the Lilac Festival!

Which was, this year, well…we’ve been enjoying gorgeous weather recently. Today is sunny and wonderful. The days leading up to yesterday were also mostly pleasant and nice. But yesterday itself was…a soggy rainfest that started before we even left for the day. Here I am, staring existentially out the back window at the gray rains. (More specifically, I’m waiting for my water to boil for coffee.)

We got to the Festival and tracked down our favorite food truck for poutine, which we were lucky enough to eat out of the rain in a big food tent. So that was nice. Poutine is always lovely.

Pulled-pork Poutine

But then we were out into the rain to try to see some of the lilacs and the various trees in Rochester’s Highland Park.

Reservoir at the crest of Highland Park. City drinking water is sourced here.

We didn’t walk around nearly as much as we usually do, because it was raining. I had an umbrella, but it’s on the small side, and The Wife wore a coat that she believed to be waterproof. (This turned out to be incorrect, so we stopped into a tie-dye clothing vendor at the Festival’s art sale and bought her a shirt just so she’d have something dry to change into. Some years, the anniversary gifts aren’t as romantic as others, I must admit.) I stayed mostly dry, thanks to my umbrella, but I have determined that I need a larger umbrella, probably one of those gigantic ones that some folks carry around. I concluded this because it turns out that the sleeves of a poofy shirt can actually exceed the coverage provided by your small umbrella, with dampening results:

Not one but two wet sleeves. Oh well, live and learn. Onto the shopping list a bigger umbrella goes.

Later on we went to The Chicken Coop in Webster, NY for fried chicken. We love this place and it’s a favorite destination of ours now when we’re passing through that particular part of town.

So, the day was something of a mixed bag, alas.

Up in the title to this post, I mention Rachmaninoff. There is a tie-in here: specifically the lilac flower. In 1902 Rachmaninoff wrote a song cycle, 12 Romances, one of which is a setting of a poem about lilacs. From this sprang an odd gesture of appreciation from one of the composer’s fans, as described here by Bertensson and Leyda in Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music:

It was about the time of his return from America that the mysterious activities of the “white lilacs lady” began. Rachmaninoff could give no concert or recital without a bouquet of white lilacs among the floral tributes. Bouquets of white lilacs were also delivered on every birthday, every saint’s day; and if he happened to be abroad on those dates, the white lilacs would just as surely arrive at his hotel or the compartment of his train. The notes accompanying this tribute were always brief and tender, congratulating him on his birthday or wishing him success in the concert, and the only signature was the Russian initials of “White Lilacs”; the song “Lilacs” in Op. 21 appears to have inspired this extraordinary labor of love. Rachmaninoff appreciated the lady’s incognito as deeply as the simple, warm words of her notes, though sometimes the gift was a little flamboyant–especially when the everlasting white lilacs arrived on schedule in the depth of winter. Not only did bouquets, wreathes, and other ornamental florist’s designs arrive with these flowers but the gift took other forms, such as an ebony conductor’s baton engraved with a design of white lilacs and Rachmaninoff’s initials. The giver’s identity remained hidden from the composer and all members of his family.

Fortunately, the mystery did not remain so. From the footnote in Bertensson and Leyda:

It was not until 1918, after the Rachmaninoffs had gone abroad, that “White Lilacs” was identified. Sophia Satina [the composer’s niece] tells of this: “As I walked to my laboratory one day I heard a horse galloping behind me: I turned and saw a cabman whipping the horse frantically, with an elderly woman standing in the lurching cab, clinging to him with one hand and waving to me with the other. When they came up to me, this woman, breathless and agitated, said, ‘Thank God! How happy I am to find you! I am White Lilacs–my name is Rousseau.–Where is Rachmaninoff? Is he alive?’ She was overjoyed to hear that he was well and working abroad. When Sergei Vasilyevich heard about Mme. Rousseau, he offered to help her to leave Russia, but she preferred to stay in Moscow with her daughter.”

Apparently when it became clear to Mme. Rousseau that Rachmaninoff would not be returning to Russia at all, in the wake of the Revolution, she ceased the gifts of lilacs. I do not know what became of her after this, but I do wonder if Rachmaninoff missed the constant presence of white lilacs in his later life…perhaps not as a reminder of a specific admirer, but as one more way his beloved Russia of old was gone forever.

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