Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873–March 28, 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor who is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music. The Rachmaninoff family, of Russian and distant Moldovan descent, was a part of an “old aristocracy,” having been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century, with strong musical and military leanings. The composer’s father, Vasily Arkadyevich (1841–1916), an amateur pianist and army officer, married Lyubov Petrovna Butakova (1853–1929). Sergei was born on April 1, 1873, at the estate of Semyonovo, near the administrative city of Great Novgorod in north-western Russia. When he was four, his mother gave him casual piano lessons, but it was his paternal grandfather, Arkady Alexandrovich, who brought Anna Ornatskaya, a teacher from Saint Petersburg, to teach Sergei in 1882. Ornatskaya remained for “two or three years”, until Vasily had to auction off their home and they moved to a small flat in Saint Petersburg.
Ornatskaya arranged for Sergei to study at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which he entered in 1883, at age ten and studied with Vladimir Delyansky. That year his sister Sofia died of diphtheria, and his father left for Moscow, so Sergei’s maternal grandmother stepped in to help raise the children, especially focusing on their spiritual life. She regularly took Sergei to Russian Orthodox services, where he was first exposed to the liturgical chants and the church bells of the city, which would later permeate many of his compositions. Another important musical influence was his sister Yelena’s involvement in the Bolshoi Theater. She was just about to join the company, being offered coaching and private lessons, but she fell ill and died of pernicious anemia at the age of 18. As a respite from this tragedy, grandmother Butakova brought him to a farm retreat on the Volkhov River, where he had a boat and developed a love for rowing. In 1885, back at the Conservatory, Sergei played at events often attended by Grand Duke Konstantin and other important people. His mother consulted with her nephew by marriage Alexander Siloti, already an accomplished pianist studying under Franz Liszt, who recommended that Sergei attend the Moscow Conservatory to study with his own original teacher and disciplinarian, Nikolai Zverev. Besides piano lessons from Zverev, Rachmaninoff studied theory under such men as Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev; amongst Rachmaninoff’s classmates was Alexander Scriabin.
While in Moscow Rachmaninoff lived with the Satins, a family of cousins. He would marry his cousin Natalia Satina. In the spring of 1891, he took his final piano examination at the Moscow Conservatory and passed with honors. He moved to Ivanovka with Siloti, and composed some songs and began what would become his Piano Concerto No. 1 (Op. 1). During his final studies at the Conservatory he completed Youth Symphony, a one-movement symphonic piece, Prince Rostislav, a symphonic poem, and The Rock (Op. 7), a fantasia for orchestra. He gave his first independent concert on February 11, 1892, premiering his Trio élégiaque No. 1, with violinist David Kreyn and cellist Anatoliy Brandukov. He performed the first movement of his first piano concerto on March 29, 1892 in an over-long concert consisting of entire works of most of the composition students at the Conservatory. His final composition for the Conservatory was Aleko, a one-act opera based on the poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, which Rachmaninoff completed while staying with his father in Moscow. It was first performed on May 19, 1892 and gained him the Great Gold Medal. The Conservatory issued him a diploma on May 29, 1892, at the age of 19.
Rachmaninoff continued to compose, publishing at this time his Six Songs (Op. 4) and Two Pieces (Op. 2). He spent the summer of 1892 on the estate of Ivan Konavalov, a rich landowner in the Kostroma Oblast, then moved back with the Satins in the Arbat District. He took an engagement at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition, where he premiered his landmark Prelude in C-sharp minor (Op. 3, No. 2). This small piece was part of a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie. He spent the summer of 1893 in Lebedyn with some friends, where he composed Fantaisie-Tableaux (Suite No. 1, Op. 5) and his Morceaux de salon (Op. 10). At the summer’s end, he moved back to Moscow, and at Sergei Taneyev’s house discussed with Tchaikovsky the possibility of his conducting The Rock at its premiere. However, because it had to be premiered in Moscow, not Europe, where Tchaikovsky was touring, Vasily Safonov conducted it instead, and the two met soon after for Zverev’s funeral. Rachmaninoff had a short excursion to conduct Aleko in Kiev, and on his return, received the news about Tchaikovsky’s unexpected death on November 6, 1893. Almost immediately, on the same day, he began work on his Trio élégiaque No. 2, just as Tchaikovsky had quickly written his Trio in A minor after Nikolai Rubinstein’s death.
The sudden death of Tchaikovsky was a great blow to young Rachmaninoff that he immediately began writing a second Trio élégiaque in his memory. His First Symphony (Op. 13) was premiered on March 28,1897, in one of a long-running series of “Russian Symphony Concerts”, but was brutally panned. After the poor reception of his First Symphony, Rachmaninoff fell into a period of deep depression that lasted three years, during which he wrote almost nothing. Savva Mamontov, a famous Russian industrialist and patron of the arts, who two years earlier had founded the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company, offered Rachmaninoff the post of assistant conductor for the 1897–8 season. During this period he became engaged to fellow pianist Natalia Satina whom he had known since childhood and who was his first cousin.
In 1900, Rachmaninoff began a course of autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, who was himself an excellent though amateur musician. The composer began to recover his confidence and eventually he was able to overcome his writer’s block. In 1901 he completed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, arguably the most beloved concerto in western music, and dedicated it to Dr. Dahl. In that same year, his Cello Sonata was also composed. The little-heard cantata Spring followed in 1902. He and Natalia were wed in a suburb of Moscow by an army priest on April 29 of that year. The marriage was a happy one, producing two daughters: Irina, later Princess Wolkonsky (1903-1969) and Tatiana Conus (1907-1961). His and Natalia’s union lasted until the composer’s death. Natalia Rachmaninova died in 1951. After several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninoff was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904, although political reasons led to his resignation in March 1906, after which he stayed in Italy until July. He spent the following three winters in Dresden, Germany, intensively composing such works as The Miserly Knight (Op. 24, 1904) and Francesca da Rimini (Op. 25, 1905), and returning to the family estate of Ivanovka every summer. Other works during this time included the Fifteen Songs (1906) for voice and piano, Symphony No. 2 (1908), and Piano Sonata No. 1 (1908).
Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909, an event for which he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30, 1909) as a calling card. These successful concerts made him a popular figure in America. However, he declined requests for future American concerts until after he emigrated from Russia in 1917, including an offer to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The early death in 1915 of Alexander Scriabin, who had been his good friend and fellow student at the Moscow Conservatory, affected Rachmaninoff so deeply that he went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin’s music. The 1917 Russian Revolution meant the end of Russia as the composer had known it. Rachmaninoff was a member of the Russian bourgeoisie, and the Revolution led to the loss of his estate, his way of life, and his livelihood. On December 22, 1917, he left Petrograd for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sled, having only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions and two orchestral scores, his unfinished opera Monna Vanna and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel. He was 44 years old. He spent a year giving concerts in Scandinavia while laboring to widen his concert repertoire.
Near the end of 1918, Rachmaninoff received three offers of lucrative American contracts. Although he declined all three, he decided the United States might offer a solution to his financial concerns. He departed Kristiania (Oslo) for New York on November 1, 1918. Once there, Rachmaninoff quickly chose an agent, Charles Ellis, and accepted the gift of a piano from Steinway before playing 40 concerts in a four-month period. At the end of the 1919–20 season, he also signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, the Rachmaninoffs bought a house in the United States, where they consciously recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing old Russian customs. Due to his busy concert career, Rachmaninoff’s output as composer slowed tremendously. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, while living in the U.S. and Europe, he completed only six compositions. Aside from the need to constantly tour and perform to support himself and his family, the main reason was homesickness. It was during these years that he toured the United States as a concert pianist.
When Rachmaninoff left Russia, it was as if he had left behind his inspiration. His revival as a composer became possible only after he had built himself a new home, Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. There, in the comfort of his own villa, which reminded him of his old family estate, Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of his best known works, in 1934. He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44, 1935–36) and the Symphonic Dances (Op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the Symphonic Dances in 1941 in the Academy of Music. In December 1939 he conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. This was the first time he had stood on a conductor’s podium since January 1917, his last appearance as a conductor in Russia.
In late 1940 or 1941 he was approached by the makers of the British film Dangerous Moonlight to write a short concerto-like piece for use in the film, but he declined. The job went to Richard Addinsell and the orchestrator Roy Douglas, who came up with the Warsaw Concerto. Sergei Rachmaninoff was also on the Board of Directors for the Tolstoy Foundation Center in Valley Cottage, New York. In 1940, with the composer’s consent, pianist Vladimir Horowitz created a fusion of the 1913 original and 1931 revised versions of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata. Horowitz remained a champion of Rachmaninoff’s solo works and his Third Concerto which received an August 7, 1942, Hollywood Bowl performance. The two men continued to support each other’s work, each making a point of attending concerts given by the other.They regularly gave two-piano recitals at the composer’s home in Beverly Hills. The recitals, never recorded, are known to have included Rachmaninoff’s Second Suite and the two-piano reduction of the Symphonic Dances.
Rachmaninoff fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942 and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced melanoma. On February 1, 1943 he and his wife became American citizens. His last recital, given on 17 February 1943 at the Alumni Gymnasium of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, included Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2, which contains the famous Marche funèbre (Funeral March). A statue called “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert”, designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, now stands in World Fair Park in Knoxville as a permanent tribute to Rachmaninoff. He became so ill after this recital that he had to return to his home near Los Angeles, and he died of melanoma on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, CA, just four days before his 70th birthday. A choir sang his All Night Vigil at his funeral.
Rachmaninoff’s compositions are limited in number, but their lush sonorities and grandeur have made them standards of classical music. Rachmaninoff wrote five works for piano and orchestra: four concertos, plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Of the concertos, the Second and Third are the most popular. He also composed a number of works for orchestra alone, including the three symphonies, works for piano solo, two major a cappella choral works, other choral, three operas, some chamber music, and many songs for voice and piano such as the wordless Vocalise. Early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and other Russian composers gave way to a personal style notable for its song-like melodicism, expressiveness and his use of rich orchestral colors.
The following works by Sergei Rachmaninoff are contained in my collection:
Caprice Bohemien, op. 12 (1894).
(Piano) Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in f#m, op. 1 (1891).
(Piano) Concerto No. 2 in cm, op. 18 (1901).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 3 in dm, op. 39 (1909).
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 4 in gm, op. 40 (1927).
The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Poem, op. 29 (1907).
Prince Rostislav, Symphonic Poem after Alexei Tolstoy (1891).
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
The Rock, Fantasy for Orchestra, op. 7 (1893).
Scherzo in FM (1887).
Spring, Cantata for Baritone, Chrous, and Orchestra, op. 20 (1902).
Symphonic Dances, op. 45 (1940).
Symphony in dm, Youth (1891).
Symphony No. 1 in dm, op. 13 (1895).
Symphony No. 2 in em, op. 27 (1908).
Symphony No. 3 in am, op. 44 (1940).
Symphony “The Bells” for Soprano, Tenor, Baritone, Chorus and Orchestra, op. 35 (1913).
Three Russian Songs for Chorus and Orchestra, op. 41 (1927).
Vocalise for Orchestra, op. 34, no. 14 (1912).
—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources