Rachmaninov’s “The Rock”: An Homage to the Romantic Tone Poem

Sergei Rachmaninov was twenty years old when he composed the orchestral tone poem, The Rock, Op. 7 in the summer of 1893. It is music which looks back as much as forward. We hear Rachmaninov’s distinctive voice coming into focus. At the same time, this early work pays homage to an existing Russian Romantic tradition. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom the piece was dedicated, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin is evident. At moments, The Rock develops with that …

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Sviatoslav Richter Plays Rachmaninov: Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Prelude in D Major, Op. 23, No. 4 (Andante cantabile) is a dreamy nocturne in triple meter. Its sensuous melody floats above continuous eighth note waves which rise and fall gently. Moving from intimacy to soaring passion, it takes us on a journey filled with revelatory harmonic turns. Rachmaninov’s Ten Preludes, Op. 23 were composed between 1901 and 1903. “How well he hears the silence,” observed the writer, Maxim Gorky, after …

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Rachmaninov’s “The Bells”: A Choral Symphony Inspired by Poe

During a vacation in Rome in 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov received an anonymous letter which contained an intriguing text. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s 1849 poem, The Bells, freely translated and adapted by the Russian symbolist poet, Konstantin Balmont. Included was a note from the mysterious sender which suggested that the verses were ripe for a musical setting and that they were well-suited to the composer’s temperament. After Rachmaninov’s death, it was revealed that the …

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Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 1 “Fantaisie-tableaux”: Vivid Musical Pictures

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Fantaisie Tableaux for two pianos, better known as Suite No. 1, Op. 5, was conceived as “a series of musical pictures.” The piece is made up of four vivid and magical soundscapes, each loosely inspired by a poem. It’s music of the young Rachmaninov, written in the summer of 1893, a year after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. The score was dedicated to Tchaikovsky, who offered the young composer support. Following …

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Rachmaninov’s Trio élégiaque in D Minor: “To the Memory of a Great Artist”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died suddenly at the age of 53 on October 25, 1893, nine days after the premiere of the “Pathétique” Symphony. He had been an important ally and mentor to the young Sergei Rachmaninov, helping to get the 20-year-old composer’s first opera, Aleko, performed at the Bolshoi Theatre, and expressing interest in conducting his symphonic poem, The Rock. Rachmaninov began composing the Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor after receiving word …

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Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto: Daniil Trifonov in Concert

One hundred and ten years ago today, on November 4, 1909, Sergei Rachmaninov made his American debut with a recital at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In the weeks that followed, the 36-year-old composer appeared in cities including Philadelphia and New York, where he premiered the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor—newly written for the tour—with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. The American tour came at a time when Rachmaninov was cutting …

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Rachmaninov’s “Isle of the Dead”: A Tone Poem in Black and White

In 1907, Sergei Rachmaninov saw a black and white reproduction of Isle of the Dead, a painting by the Swiss symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin. The haunting dream image depicts a solitary rowboat carrying a coffin, bound for a desolate, rocky island. The scene suggests the mythological River Styx and the transition of a recently deceased soul to the afterlife. The image affected Rachmaninov deeply and inexplicably. It was a powerful, immediate, and spontaneous creative …

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