Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)

Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the last of the great Russian Romantic composers. He was born near the ancient Russian city of Novgorod into an aristocratic family. As a child, he displayed precocious talents as a pianist and composer. His hands were unusually large, which gave him great command over the keyboard. He studied briefly at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, before moving to Moscow, where he studied piano with his cousin Alexander Siloti (a pupil of Liszt) and composition with Arensky and Taneyev. While a student, he won a Gold Medal in composition for an early opera. He also composed the first of his four piano concertos and the enormously popular Prelude in C-Sharp minor, the first of an eventual set of 24 preludes in each of the major and minor keys, (similar to Bach’s earlier Well-Tempered Clavier and the later 24 Preludes & Fugues by Shostakovich, as well as Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis). Two of his early mentors were Pyotr Tchaikovsky, (who commissioned him to do a piano arrangement of his ballet, Sleeping Beauty), and the operatic bass soloist Fyodor Chaliapin. Rachmaninoff was devastated by Tchaikovsky’s death and composed his second Piano Trio in his memory.

In 1896, he wrote his First Symphony. The premiere performance was a disaster, due to an under-rehearsed orchestra and the drunkenness of the conductor, Glazunov. After the poor reception of the work, Rachmaninoff fell into a severe depression and experienced writer’s block. To maintain his income, he took up conducting and eventually became the conductor of the Bolshoi Theater. After four years, he sought the help of a therapist and was able to resume composing, beginning with the Piano Concerto No. 2, which became an immediate success and is one of the most popular pieces of classical music in the world. Around this time, he also married his long-time love, Natalia. He also undertook a concert tour of the United States, composing the Piano Concerto No. 3 as a feature for himself. It remains one of the most technically demanding pieces in the piano repertoire. (One of the first performances in New York featured Gustav Mahler as the conductor, an experience Rachmaninoff treasured.) A later tour featured the music of the recently deceased Scriabin, who had been a fellow student with Rachmaninoff in Moscow. Other important works from this period include his Second Symphony, a tone poem, (The Isle of the Dead), a Sonata for Cello, a choral symphony, (The Bells), and his Vespers or All-Night Vigil, as well as several pieces for solo piano. He was also a gifted composer for the voice. His songs feature the poetry of Goethe, Shelley, Hugo, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Ironically, his best-known song is the wordless Vocalise, which he later arranged for orchestra.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff lost his position and property. He eventually emigrated to America and became a U.S. citizen. Upon his arrival in New York, the Steinway company presented him with a grand piano and he signed a recording contract with RCA Victor. He and his wife tried to recreate Russian life at their home, often hosting other Russian émigrés such as Chaliapin and the young piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. Rachmaninoff was greatly taken with Horowitz’s performances of his music and the two often performed piano duos whenever they could get together.

After his move to the U.S., Rachmaninoff’s busy schedule as a performer combined with a deep homesickness led to a sharp decrease in his compositional output and he only completed six more pieces in the 25 years before his death. Many of them are some of his greatest, including the Third Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and his last work, the Symphonic Dances, dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In late 1942, he was diagnosed with cancer. He gave his last recital at the University of Tennessee in February 1943, where he performed Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata. He died the following month. Although his music was considered old-fashioned by contemporary composers and critics, it was extremely popular with audiences and remains so to this day. Rachmaninoff was considered to be one of the greatest pianists of his day and made several recordings of his own music (including all 4 Piano Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody), as well as the music of other composers, such as Bach, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann. He also produced several piano rolls for player piano. (His earliest recordings were made with Thomas Edison.) Although he never composed any music for films, his works have figured prominently in several movies, including Brief Encounter, The Story of Three Loves, The Seven Year Itch, Somewhere In Time, and Shine. It has also been the basis of several pop songs.

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