Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a highly successful Russian composer, an unrivaled pianist, and a distinguished conductor. "I have followed three hares, " he once said. "Can I be certain that I have captured one?"

Sergei Rachmaninov was born in Novgorod on April 1, 1873, at the estate of his aristocratic, impoverished family. His paternal grandfather gave up his career in the army so that he could practice 5 hours a day; he was an amateur because at that time it was considered demeaning for men of his social class to be professional pianists. Sergei's parents were also musical, and his mother was his first piano teacher.

When Sergei was 9, his parents separated, and the mother and children moved to St. Petersburg. This was one of the most interesting and artistic cities in the world. The musical life centered on the conservatory, where Sergei was accepted as a student. He learned little from his teachers, so in 1885 his mother sent him to Moscow, Russia's other great musical and cultural center. He studied piano at the conservatory with Nicolai Sverev and lived at his teacher's house.

Rachmaninov became a fine pianist, but he was more interested in composing after he entered Anton Arensky's and Alexander Taneiev's classes. In 1892 Rachmaninov graduated in piano and also received the Gold Medal in composition, the conservatory's highest honor. His final project in composition, the one-act opera Aleko, was considered so outstanding that it received a professional production.


Diversified Activities

During the next 3 years Rachmaninov supported himself by teaching piano at two girls' schools, an occupation he did not enjoy. Among the pieces he wrote at this time was his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, which soon became one of the most popular piano pieces in the world. Its dark, "Russian" quality was irresistible, and it did more to make his name known than any of his other accomplishments.

In 1897 Rachmaninov's First Symphony was played in St. Petersburg; it was a fiasco, and the critics' reviews were merciless. The composer was aware of the symphony's weaknesses, and he became seriously depressed and unable to compose. He accepted an offer to become assistant conductor at an opera house but resigned after a year to conduct and play in London. Still suffering from a psychological block, he sought help from Nicolai Dahl, a physician who used hypnosis and suggestion to cure mental depression. The treatments were successful. In 1901 Rachmaninov completed his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dahl. It had an immediate success and became one of the most frequently performed of all concertos. The concerto embodied the best traits of the composer's style, from the brooding sonorities of the opening chords, and the lyricism of the slow movement, to the brilliance of the third.

In 1902 Rachmaninov married his cousin, Natalie Satin, and continued his diversified activities. He found it difficult to follow his "three hares." He neglected composition when, in 1905, he became conductor at the Grand Theater Opera, a very important post in the musical life of Moscow. He soon resigned and moved to Dresden, Germany, to devote himself to composing. Two of his best works were completed in 1907: The Isle of the Dead, a tone poem; and the Second Symphony, whose high emotional level and colorful orchestration show a strong Tchaikovsky influence. By the time this symphony was composed, Debussy had written La Mer, Richard Strauss had written Salome, and Scriabin had written The Poem of Ecstasy, but Rachmaninov remained loyal to the ideals and idioms of late-19th-century romantic music.

In 1909 Rachmaninov visited the United States. He played the first performance of his Third Piano Concerto with the New York Symphony Orchestra and conducted the Boston Orchestra, as well as the New York Philharmonic. He was offered the post of conductor of the Boston Symphony but declined.

In 1910 Rachmaninov was named vice president of the Russian Imperial Music Society, which controlled all higher music schools in the country, including the conservatories in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He concentrated on improving the smaller provincial schools and established an important one in Kiev. All the while he was composing. Among his most important works were those for piano: Thirteen Preludes (1910), Six études Tableaux (1911), and Nine études Tableaux (1917). He wrote over 70 songs with piano accompaniment; The Bells, a choral symphony for soprano, tenor, and baritone (1913); and a Vesper Mass for boys' and men's voices (1913).


The Move to America

The turning point of Rachmaninov's life was the 1917 Revolution in Russia. He was in Moscow during the early uprisings, but he realized that it would be impossible to remain and accepted an invitation to play a series of concerts in Scandinavia. His family soon joined him, and they never returned to Russia. To support his family he became a concert pianist—something he never wanted to be. He rented a house in Copenhagen and started practicing to learn recital programs; up to this time he had played his own compositions almost exclusively.

In November 1918 Rachmaninov sailed for New York and began a career as a touring virtuoso. Each season was divided between the United States, England, and the Continent. Whenever he could, he would go to his house in Lucerne, Switzerland, where he enjoyed boating, driving his car, and composing. His Fourth Piano Concerto (1927), Third Symphony (1936), and Symphonoic Dances for Orchestra (1941) were not successful, but his Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra (1934) became a favorite of pianists and audiences alike and soon rivaled the Second Concerto in popularity. With the outbreak of World War II he moved to Beverly Hills, Calif. He died there on March 28, 1943.

Rachmaninov's life was not a happy one. He thought of himself as a composer, but he was never able to devote himself entirely to composition. Furthermore, although some of his compositions achieved worldwide popularity, most of the critics condemned them for being old-fashioned and reactionary, and he felt that he was out of step with the times. He hated concertizing, and his standards were so high that he was rarely pleased with his playing. His "six and a half foot tall scowl, " as his friend Igor Stravinsky called it, was famous.


Further Reading on Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov

Although Rachmaninov spoke disparagingly about the book by Oscar von Riesemann, Rachmaninov's Recollections (1934), it contains many interesting insights. Other biographies are Victor I. Seroff, Rachmaninoff (1950), and Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (1956). A critical analysis of each composition is in John Culshaw, Rachmaninov: The Man and His Music (1950).

Additional Biography Sources

Bazhanov, N. (Nikolai), Rachmaninov, Moscow: Raduga, 1983.

Lyle, Watson, Rachmaninoff: a biography, New York: AMS Press, 1976.

Martyn, Barrie, Rachmaninoff: composer, pianist, conductor, Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press; Brookfield, Vt., USA: Gower Pub. Co., 1990.

Matthew-Walker, Robert, Rachmaninoff, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1984, 1980.

Norris, Geoffrey, Rachmaninoff, New York: Schirmer Books: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.

Piggott, Patrick, Rachmaninov, London: Faber and Faber, 1978.