Sergei Rachmaninoff Biography

Russian American classical composer, pianist, and conductor

Rachmaninoff was a composer, conductor, and pianist known primarily for his contribution to piano literature and his impeccable pianistic technique. He began composing in a late nineteenth century Romantic idiom, but his later works are characterized by leaner textures and occasional jazz influences. His piano concerti are revered for their haunting lyricism and their staggering technical difficulty.

Born: April 1, 1873; Semyonovo, Novgorod District, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943; Beverly Hills, California
Also known as: Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (full name)

Principal works
chamber works: Trio Elégiaque in G Minor, Op. 9, No. 1, 1892 (for piano trio); Trio Elégiaque in D Minor, Op. 9, No. 2, 1893 (for piano trio). choral works: Two Pieces, Op. 6, 1893 (for violin and piano); Liturgiya svyatovo Ioanna Zlatousta, Op. 31, 1910 (Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom; for unaccompanied choir); Vsenoshchnoye bdeniye, Op. 37, 1915 (The All-Night Vigil; for unaccompanied choir); Three Russian Songs, Op. 41, 1927 (for chorus and orchestra). operas (music): Francesca da Rimini, Op. 25, 1906 (based on Dante’s Inferno); Skupoy ritsar’, Op. 24, 1906 (The Miserly Knight; based on Alexander Pushkin’s drama).
orchestral works: Knyaz’ Rostislav, 1891 (Prince Rostislav; symphonic poem based on Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy’s poem for orchestra); Piano Concerto in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1, No. 1, 1891; Utyos, Op. 7, 1893 (The Rock; symphonic poem based on Anton Chekhov’s short story “Na puti”); Kaprichchio na tsiganskiye temi, Op. 12, 1894 (Caprice bohémien; Capriccio on Gypsy Themes); Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 13, 1896; Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, 1901; Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18, 1901; Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27, 1908; Ostrov myortvikh, Op. 29, 1909 (The Isle of the Dead); Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, 1909; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor, Op. 40, 1926; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A Minor, Op. 43, 1934 (for piano and orchestra); Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44, 1936; Three Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, 1940.
piano works: Russian Rhapsody in E, 1891 (for two pianos); Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3, 1892 (for solo piano); Morceaux de salon, Op. 10, 1894 (for solo piano); Suite No. 2, Op. 17, 1901 (for two pianos); Ten Preludes, Op. 23, 1903 (for solo piano); Variations on a Theme of Chopin in C Minor, Op. 22, 1903 (for solo piano); Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 28, 1908; Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32, 1910 (for solo piano); Études- Tableaux, Op. 33, 1911 (for solo piano); Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 36, 1913; Variations on a Theme of Corelli in D Minor, Op. 42, 1931 (for solo piano). vocal work: Danse hongroise, Op. 8, 1893 (six songs for voice and piano).

The Life
On April 1, 1873, Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (SEHR-gay rahk-MAH-nih-nahf) was born to Vasily and Lubov Petrovna Rachmaninoff. One of six children, Rachmaninoff exhibited musical talent at an early age, and he was sent to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. (He later graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892.) Despite what seemed to be an advantageous beginning, the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 inDMinor, Op. 13 was a complete failure, and Rachmaninoff plummeted into depression. Through the efforts of Nikolai Dahl, a hypnotist, Rachmaninoff rallied and emerged from his despondency to write his Piano Concerto No. 2, dedicating the work to Dahl, who had restored Rachmaninoff’s ever-faltering confidence. Rachmaninoff married his first cousin, Natalia Skalon, in April of 1902. Living in Moscow and then Dresden, the family, which came to include two daughters, Tatiana and Irina, spent their summer holidays at Ivanovka, Natalia’s Russian country estate. At Ivanovka, Rachmaninoff completed or started most of his Russian-period compositions, including Variations on a Theme of Chopin in C Minor, Ten Preludes, Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Thirteen Preludes, Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, and the Études- Tableaux. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution, which began in February, 1917, with the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, marked the end of the Romanov dynasty, and by October the Bolsheviks had risen to power. The revolution arrived when Rachmaninoff was at the zenith of his three musical careers, as composer, pianist, and conductor.

On December 23, 1917, the Rachmaninoff family left Russia permanently, under the auspices of a Swedish concert tour. To help his increasingly dire financial situation, Rachmaninoff decided to relocate to the United States and to make performing, rather than composition or conducting, his main focus. At the age of forty-five, he began learning a massive new keyboard repertory. Within a month of his arrival in the United States, Rachmaninoff signed contracts with Thomas Edison’s gramophone company, the Ampico reproducing piano company, and the Steinway and Sons piano manufacturer. He also embarked on his first extensive North American concert tour, and while he came to loathe the strenuous schedule of concertizing, he also recognized performing as a necessary evil. His new role as a touring artist left little time for composition. He died extremely successful at the age of sixty-nine, at hishomein Beverly Hills, California.

The Music
By the early twentieth century, Rachmaninoff’s music was among the last bastions of Romanticism for many contemporary audiences. His writing for piano, reminiscent of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, and Frédéric Chopin, prioritized beautiful melodies embedded in a complex framework, generally supported by a strong left-hand bass. As a child, he had visited many country churches with his grandmother, and these experiences influenced his later writing not only through his use of church modes and interest in church music but also, as musicologist Glen Carruthers notes, for the “bell-like” gestures in his piano writing.

Piano Concerto No. 2. This opens with a bell-like alternation between forceful octaves and chords, cementing what was to become a standard trait in Rachmaninoff’s music. Opening with the piano and flute in a sonorous exchange, the concerto’s second movement is one of the composer’s most beloved. Rachmaninoff’s concerti are known for their pianistic lyricism and for their technical demands.

Preludes. Rachmaninoff’s preludes bear many of the stylistic hallmarks seen consistently throughout his entire compositional output. His use of belllike sonorities is evident, and so is his use of embedded melodies, a technique frequently associated with another virtuoso composer, Liszt. His Op. 32 preludes are more tonally adventurous and reflect his greater interest in harmonic experimentation in this period. As musicologist Christoph Flamm notes, Rachmaninoff’s works composed from 1910 to 1917 aremore daring in their dissonance and harmonies, although they still remain well within a tonal framework and within Rachmaninoff’s compositional idiom.

The All-Night Vigil. Although Rachmaninoff’s choral compositions have often been overlooked, The All-Night Vigil is considered by some to be among the finest examples of Russian Orthodox Church music ever composed and also among the finest liturgical pieces of the twentieth century. He wrote the work in an attempt to outdo his setting of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. The All-Night Vigil‘s fifteen numbers are for unaccompanied soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB) choir, and the text is Old Church Slavonic.

Musically speaking, Rachmaninoff based No. 2 and No. 15 on Greek chants (“Praise the Lord,OMy Soul” and “To the Mother of God”), while No. 4 and No. 5 (“Gladsome Radiance” and “Nunc Dimittis”) were based on Kiev chants, and znamenny (Russian Orthodox) chant formed the basis for No. 9 (“Blessed Be the Lord”), No. 8 (“Praise the Name of the Lord”), No. 12 (“The Great Doxology”), No. 13 (“The Day of Salvation”), and No. 14 (“Christ Is Risen from the Tomb”). The other numbers employ Rachmaninoff’s own settings of motives characteristic of Russian church music. His ingenuity in manipulating the chant material to suit his musical purposes reveals, once again, his masterful talent for melody.

Variations on aThemeof Corelli. The Variations on a Theme of Corelli in D Minor for solo piano are based on the la folia theme, which was first mentioned in Portuguese texts of the fifteenth century. Rachmaninoff incorrectly attributed its origin to Arcangelo Corelli, who had used la folia in his Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord, Op. 5, No. 12. There are twenty variations and a coda, written primarily inDminor, the only exception being variations XIV and XV, which are in D-flat major. As musicologist Barrie Martyn notes, most variations emphasize thematic transformation and harmonic exploration, as well as pointed rhythmic attack. Overall, the work is wholly unlike anything else in Rachmaninoff’s piano idiom. The piece was his final work for solo piano.

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. For what many consider his fifth piano concerto, Rachmaninoff used Niccolò Paganini’s twenty-fourth caprice from Twenty-four Caprices in A Minor (1805) for solo violin as his thematic material, composing twentyfour variations around this melody. Having served as a judge at the 1924 Paul Whiteman concert that launched George Gershwin’s massively successful Rhapsody in Blue, Rachmaninoff noticed the public’s penchant for rhapsodies. Hence, he titled the work Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninoff opened the work with a brief introduction, followed immediately by the first variation, preceding the theme itself, which enters in the strings at measure thirty-four. Originally, Rachmaninoff did not plan to withhold the theme, as is evidenced by the pen-knife scratches that do not completely conceal the former variation numbers on the manuscript. A possible reason for this musical decision lies in the twenty-fourth variation. Here, too, as in the first variation, the orchestra merely outlines the theme. At both the end and the beginning of the work, Rachmaninoff made a conscious choice to reduce thematic complexity, a characteristic of much of his later, post-Russian-period writing. The famous eighteenth variation is an inversion of the original thematic material. Of the countless composers who used this Paganini theme before him, Rachmaninoff was apparently the only one to incorporate melodic inversion in his work. The Latin chant Dies irae also features prominently in variations seven, ten, fourteen, and twenty-two. As musicologist Glen Carruthers notes, Rachmaninoff incorporated Dies irae in many works throughout his career, such as his Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, The Isle of the Dead, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A Minor, Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, and Three Symphonic Dances. In his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff uses elements of jazz and programmatic elements in conjunction with thematic inversion and linear piano writing. Possibly his most popular and critically acclaimed work, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a staple in the concert repertoire.

Musical Legacy
Rachmaninoff’s music, in many ways, marked the end of Romanticism, surviving as it did well into the twentieth century. While many contemporary critics dismissed his music as merely a nineteenth century leftover, his music had a loyal following in his lifetime, and today Rachmaninoff’s music enjoys immense success. Undoubtedly, the musical element for which he is most remembered is melody. In his songs for solo voice and piano, his symphonies, and his piano works, lyricism is the hallmark of his stylistic idiom.

His music was scored in countless films, and the reverence accorded to his piano concerti grew to almost mythic proportions, as best seen in the film Shine (1997). Additionally, Rachmaninoff was regarded as one of the finest pianists of the twentieth century, and although he always preferred to be thought of as a composer first and pianist second, his legendary hand size and flawless technique placed him squarely alongside Vladimir Horowitz and Joseph Hoffmann as a premier pianist of his era. Nevertheless, when Rachmaninoff died in 1943, the “usual occupation” section on his death certificate listed only one word: composer.