Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff[a](English: /rɑːxˈmɑːnəˌnɔːf, -ˌnɒf, rɑːk-/rahkh-MAH-nə-nawf, -nof, rahk-;Russian: Серге́й Васи́льевич Рахма́нинов[b], tr. Sergei Vasilyevich Rahmaninov, IPA: [sʲɪrˈɡʲej vɐˈsʲilʲjɪvʲɪt͡ɕ rɐxˈmanʲɪnəf]; 1 April [O.S. 20 March] 1873 – 28 March 1943[c][d]) was a Russian composer, virtuosopianist, and conductor of the late Romantic period. Some of his compositions are staples in the classical music repertoire.
Born into a musical family, Rachmaninoff took up the piano at the age of four. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892, having already composed several piano and orchestral pieces. In 1897, following the negative critical reaction to his Symphony No. 1, Rachmaninoff entered a four-year depression and composed little until successful therapy allowed him to complete his enthusiastically received Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1901. For the next sixteen years, Rachmaninoff conducted at the Bolshoi Theatre, relocated to Dresden, Germany, and toured the United States for the first time.
Following the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia; in 1918, they settled in the United States, first in New York City. With his main source of income coming from piano and conducting performances, demanding tour schedules led to a reduction in his time for composition; between 1918 and 1943, he completed just six works, including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. By 1942, his failing health led to his relocation to Beverly Hills, California. One month before his death from advanced melanoma, Rachmaninoff was granted American citizenship.
In Rachmaninoff’s work, early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and other Russian composers gave way to a personal style notable for its song-like melodicism, expressiveness and rich orchestral colors. Rachmaninoff often featured the piano in his compositions, and he explored the expressive possibilities of the instrument through his own skills as a pianist.
Ancestry and early years, 1873–1885
Rachmaninoff at age 10
Rachmaninoff was born into a family of the Russian aristocracy in the Russian Empire. The family name can be traced back to the 1400s when Yelena, the daughter of Stephen IV of Moldavia, married the eldest son of Ivan III Vasilyevich, Grand Prince of Moscow. A son named Vasily was nicknamed “Rachmanin”, meaning “lazy” in Old Russian.Rachmaninoff’s family had strong musical and military leanings. His paternal grandfather, Arkady Alexandrovich, was a musician who had taken lessons from Irish composer John Field. His father, Vasily Arkadyevich Rachmaninoff (1841–1916), was an army officer and amateur pianist who married Lyubov Petrovna Butakova (1853–1929), the daughter of a wealthy army general who gave her five estates as part of her dowry. The couple had three sons and three daughters, Sergei being their fourth child.
It is unclear which of the two family estates where Rachmaninoff was born; either Oneg, near Veliky Novgorod, or Semyonovo, near Staraya Russa. Though his birth was registered in a church in the latter district, he was raised in Oneg until aged nine and he himself cited it as his birthplace in his adult life.Rachmaninoff began piano and music lessons organised by his mother at age four. She noticed his ability to reproduce passages from memory without a wrong note. Upon hearing news of the boy’s gift, Arkady suggested she hire Anna Ornatskaya, a teacher and recent graduate of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to live with the family and begin formal teaching. Rachmaninoff dedicated his piano composition “Spring Waters” from 12 Romances, Op. 14 to Ornatskaya.
Rachmaninoff’s father had to auction off the Oneg estate in 1882 due to his financial incompetence; the family’s five estates were now reduced to one. Rachmaninoff remained critical of his father in later life, describing him as “a wastrel, a compulsive gambler, a pathological liar, and a skirt chaser”. The family moved to a small flat in Saint Petersburg. In 1883, Ornatskaya arranged for Rachmaninoff, now 10, to study music at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Later that year his sister Sofia died of diphtheria and his father left the family for Moscow.
His maternal grandmother stepped in to help raise the children with particular focus on their spiritual life, regularly taking Rachmaninoff to Russian Orthodox Church services where he first experienced liturgical chants and church bells, two features he would incorporate in his future compositions.
Alexander Siloti and Rachmaninoff
In 1885, Rachmaninoff suffered further loss when his sister Yelena died at age eighteen of pernicious anemia. She was an important musical influence to Rachmaninoff who had introduced him to the works of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As a respite, his grandmother took him to a farm retreat by the Volkhov Riverwhere Rachmaninoff developed a love for rowing. At the Conservatory, however, he had adopted a relaxed attitude and failed his general education classes, and purposely altered his report cards in what composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakovcalled a period of “purely Russian self-delusion and laziness”.Rachmaninoff performed at events held at the Moscow Conservatory during this time, including those attended by the Grand Duke Konstantin and other notable figures, but upon his failing his spring exams Ornatskaya notified his mother that his admission to further education might be revoked. His mother then consulted with Alexander Siloti, her nephew and an accomplished pianist and student of Franz Liszt, who recommended he be transferred to the Moscow Conservatory and receive lessons from his former teacher, the more strict Nikolai Zverev, which lasted until 1888.
Moscow Conservatory and first compositions, 1885–1894Edit
In the autumn of 1885, Rachmaninoff moved in with Zverev and stayed for almost four years, during which he befriended fellow pupil Alexander Scriabin. After two years of tuition, the fifteen year old Rachmaninoff was awarded a Rubinstein scholarship,and graduated from the lower division of the Conservatory to become a pupil of Siloti in advanced piano, Sergei Taneyev in counterpoint, and Anton Arensky in free composition. In 1889, a rift formed between Rachmaninoff and Zverev, now his adviser, after Zverev turned down the composer’s request for assistance in renting a piano and greater privacy to compose. Zverev, who believed composition was a waste for talented pianists, refused to speak to Rachmaninoff for some time and organised for him to live with his uncle and aunt Satin and their family in Moscow. Rachmaninoff then found his first romance in Vera, the youngest daughter of the neighbouring Skalon family, but her mother objected and forbade Rachmaninoff to write to her, leaving him to correspond with her older sister Natalia. It is from these letters that many of Rachmaninoff’s earliest compositions can be traced.
Ivanovka was the ideal location for Rachmaninoff to compose
Rachmaninoff spent his summer break in 1890 with the Satins at Ivanovka, their private country estate near Tambov, to which the composer would return many times until 1917. The peaceful and bucolic surroundings became a source of inspiration for the composer who completed many compositions while at the estate, including his Op. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 1, which he dedicated to Siloti, in July 1891.Also that year, Rachmaninoff completed the one-movement Youth Symphony and the symphonic poem Prince Rostislav. Siloti left the Moscow Conservatory after the academic year ended in 1891 and Rachmaninoff asked to take his final piano exams a year early to avoid being assigned a different teacher. Despite little faith from Siloti and Conservatory director Vasily Safonovas he had just three weeks’ preparation, Rachmaninoff received assistance from a recent graduate who was familiar with the tests, and passed each one with honours in July 1891. Three days later, he passed his annual theory and composition exams. Progress was unexpectedly halted in the latter half of 1891 when he contracted a severe case of malaria during his summer break at Ivankova.
During his final year at the Conservatory, Rachmaninoff performed his first independent concert, where he premiered his Trio élégiaque No. 1 in February 1892, followed by a performance of the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 1 a month later. His request to take his final theory and composition exams a year early was also granted, for which he wrote Aleko, a one-act opera based on the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, in seventeen days. It premiered in May 1892 at the Bolshoi Theatrewhich Tchaikovsky attended and praised Rachmaninoff for his work.