mar 6, 7, 8
Program Notes
n the summer of 1893, the 20-year-old Rachmaninoff
retreated to the estate of friends in Kharkov and
set to work composing. Among the pieces he wrote
that summer was a brief orchestral work that he
described as a “fantasia”: its name is usually rendered in
English as
The Rock
, though a more accurate title might
The Crag
. Tchaikovsky, who had become something
of a mentor to the young Rachmaninoff, saw the score,
liked it and announced that he would conduct it on his
European tour the following year. But Tchaikovsky died
that November at age 53, a shattering blow to the young
Rachmaninoff—and it was Vasily Safronov rather than
Tchaikovsky who introduced
The Rock
, conducting it in
Moscow the following March.
This music had a mysterious inspiration. Rachmaninoff
headed the manuscript with lines from Lermontov:
The little golden cloud spent the night
On the chest of the giant crag.
Several years later, though, the young composer revealed
that the real inspiration for this music was Anton
Chekhov’s short story “On the Road” (sometimes
translated as “Along the Way”). In it, two characters
encounter each other in a lonely travelers’ inn on
a stormy Christmas Day. One is a beautiful young
woman, the other a craggy old man, scarred by the many
experiences of his life, which he pours out to her. She
sympathizes and wishes to reach out to him, but the next
morning they depart in opposite directions. Chekhov
describes the old man after her departure:
Snowflakes settled greedily on his hair, his
beard, his shoulders….Soon the imprint
of the sleigh runners vanished, and he
Sergei Rachmaninoff
April 1, 1873, Oneg, Novgorod
March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills
The Rock
, Opus 7
himself, covered with snow, gradually
assumed the appearance of a white crag,
but his eyes still sought something in the
white clouds of the drifts.
It may be tempting to associate details of the story with
the music—the roaring storm outside, the lightness of
the young woman’s voice, the dark gruffness of the old
man’s. But Rachmaninoff wanted this music understood
as an abstract “fantasia” inspired by Chekhov’s story,
rather than as a tone poem that paints its action in music.
A dark
Adagio sostenuto
introduction sets the scene, a
dancing flute solo suggests the young woman’s character,
and we seem to hear the whistling and rushing of the
storm outside. But it is the emotional content rather
than the physical details Rachmaninoff wishes to evoke:
the music rises to a great climax marked
Allegro con
and finally fades into lonely silence.
2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns,
2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, tambourine,
cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam, harp and strings
Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43
In the spring of 1934 Rachmaninoff, then 61, and his wife
moved into a villa they had just built on Lake Lucerne
in Switzerland. They were delighted by the house, its
opulent size and its view across the beautiful lake.
Rachmaninoff was especially touched to find a surprise
waiting for him there: the Steinway Company of New
York had delivered a brand new piano to the villa.
a tune that beckons composers
Rachmaninoff spent the summer gardening and
landscaping, and he also composed. Between July 3 and
August 24 he wrote a set of variations for piano and
orchestra on what is doubtless the most varied theme
in the history of music, the last of Niccolo Paganini’s
Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin. Paganini had
written that devilish tune, full of rhythmic spring and
chromatic tension, in 1820, and he himself had followed
it with 12 variations. That same theme has haunted
composers through each century since—resulting
in variations on it by Liszt (
Schumann (12 Concert Etudes) and Brahms (the two sets
of Paganini Variations) in the 19th century, followed in
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