Tone Poem Tuesday

When Sergei Rachmaninoff was just 20, he wrote his first major orchestral work, a symphonic fantasy called The Rock, or sometimes The Crag. No lesser a musical luminary than Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was impressed with the piece–there was a brief relationship between the younger composer and the old–and Tchaikovsky apparently proposed including The Crag on an upcoming program of concerts he was planning. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky died suddenly that same year, and nothing came of those plans.

I wonder what might have been had Tchaikovsky lived and had Rachmaninoff been able to really lean on Tchaikovsky as a mentor figure. A great theme of Rachmaninoff’s life was his yearning for a lost Russia, and the death of Tchaikovsky was probably the first such loss he experienced, twenty-four years before he would lose Russia itself, when Russia lost Russia itself.

As for The Crag, it really sets the stage for what Rachmaninoff will sound like pretty much all through his career: fatalistic brooding shot through with moments of nearly incandescent lyricism, achieved with sure-handed command of the orchestra. Rachmaninoff appended an epigraph to the score, a couplet from a poem by Lermontov:

The golden cloud slept through the night
Upon the breast of the giant-rock

Rachmaninoff apparently claimed a secondary “program” for the work, based on a Chekhov short story in which a young girl and an old man meet in an inn on a snowy Christmas Eve, and he tells her of his life and his regrets.

It interests me that Rachmaninoff’s dark imagination, coupled with intense lyricism, was in full flower this early in his life, before his musical gifts really caught up with it. Here is The Crag.


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