Rachmaninov graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 with the highest of honors, owing to the initial success of his opera Aleko, which served as his primary graduation exercise in composition. The Rock (or as it is also known, The Crag) was the first orchestral composition he completed following his student years.
Ostensibly, the inspiration of this composition was Chekhov's Along the way. But the composer indicated in the 1893 score that Lermontov's poem The Rock served that purpose. Because Rachmaninov acknowledged Chekhov as the inspiration in an 1898 inscription on a printed score, however, his work is generally believed to be the program source for The Rock.
The Chekhov work tells of two travelers, one a middle-aged man ("the giant rock") and the other an attractive young woman ("the golden cloud"), meeting on Christmas Eve in a roadside inn when they seek shelter from a blizzard. They develop feelings for each other, but the woman departs in a sleigh the next morning, with the man watching her in the distance as the snow covers him, making him appear like a "lonely white rock."
The work begins darkly and ponderously in the low strings, the young composer already displaying a fine sense for atmosphere. Quickly the mood brightens, the orchestration showing much color in the reeds and shimmering strings. A short, rather nondescript theme which vaguely evokes Borodin, is heard in the woodwinds, and then the tempo increases. After the material is repeated, the strings play the theme in an animated fashion, imparting more color and personality to it. The mood then turns hushed and mysterious. Eventually, the music intensifies and takes on a threatening character. This grim atmosphere soon leads to a powerful yearning passage on strings that ends with a gripping, dark climax of Tchaikovskian character. Thereafter the music remains in a gloomy, regretful haze.
The Rock was premiered March 20, 1894, in Moscow. While this piece is interesting and has many effective moments, it is not a major achievement and shows the composer's style still evolving. A typical performance of this work lasts about 15 minutes.