Rachmaninoff: The Rock, op. 7

performed by the USSR Symphony Orchestra under Eugene Svetlanov

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

While Rachmaninoff composed a number of symphonic poems and things, his real contribution to classical music, at least in my opinion, is far and away in his piano works: the concertos, the solo work; he was a consummate pianist. We’ve actually now done all of his symphonies, even though the third is eventually getting a revisit.

The Toronto Symphony’s program notes for this piece state that this work is the first orchestral piece he would publish. That is not to say it is the first work he had written or published for orchestra (I believe), as his first piano concerto is given the opus number 1. That aside, it is a very early work, and the first non-piano orchestral work he would publish, at least.

The epigraph the composer chose for the composition (quoted at the top of this article) is “a couplet from a poem by Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov.” But there’s a second layer to this ‘inspiration.’ Wikipedia says (and the TSO program notes concur) the source of Rachmaninoff’s idea:

drawn from a story by Anton Chekhov titled “Along the Way”, in which a young girl meets an older man during a stormy, overnight stop at a roadside inn on Christmas Eve. The man shares with her the story of his life, beliefs, and past failures, as a blizzard rages on through the night.

It turns out Chekhov used the same couplet as the epigraph for his work, from which Rachmaninoff draws a more literal ‘story,’ that of the young woman meeting the older man.

Tchaikovsky was so impressed with this work (as he should have been; it showed no small influence from his own work) that he wanted to include it in a tour of his own throughout Europe, but sadly, he died just weeks after hearing the work. As you might know, Tchaikovsky was susceptible to bouts of depression, especially after a not-so-favorable review of a piano performance of his sixth symphony, but his spirits were apparently lifted after hearing this young Russian composer’s work. It bears a dedication to another highly influential Russian composer, one Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. We just came off three months of Russian symphonies, so I won’t spend too much time on all that, but this is a Russian contribution to the symphonic poem form that has become relatively well known.

That all being said, it isn’t my favorite, actually. It’s Russian, and it’s pretty, but I am not in love with it. There are three main ‘characters’ to be aware of throughout the piece: obviously the man and the young woman, and then a third theme representing, as the TSO program notes say, “the intense but frustrated strivings of the man’s life.”

Listen for them. The piece opens with the man, who I feel like describing as “old,” but TSO’s program notes describe him as “a gruff, bitter middle-aged man.” I envision a white beard, balding, crusty man with a deep, gravelly voice, an old sailor type. In any case, the piece opens with him, cellos and basses, big and craggy. In contrast, the young woman should be very obvious, the most strikingly memorable theme of the whole work, for me, the delicate, beautiful, tender flute.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is that the man’s “strivings” are represented, again according to TSO’s notes, written by Kevin Bazzana, by “various woodwinds in succession,” which makes me think of it as kind of a middle ground between the two; I associate the woodwinds closely with the young woman, but these struggles and stories are coming from the old, raspy, bitter traveler.

The piece comes in at around fifteen minutes and is of the orchestral sound and color one would expect from someone who’d taken a page from the books of Tchaikovsky and NRK. It’s certainly a nice work, but there’s not much in it to blow me away. The young composer (at this point only twenty years old) would do far greater things, and it’s perhaps a reason this work seems, at least to me, to be one of the less successful or performed of his symphonic output. But we include it anyway.

In short, listen for the three themes, the story that is being told, and to the orchestral color, all produced by a twenty-year-old who’d yet to make his big break. I find the program of the work to be less convincing than many others we will talk about, but it was a young effort, and yet contains some of the qualities the man would later become known for.

The next two weeks, the first half of February, contain what must be my favorite works of this series (that will last through the beginning of March), whereupon there will be some exciting new things. Stay tuned. See you then.

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