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Famous Like Me > Composer > R > Sergei Rachmaninov

Profile of Sergei Rachmaninov on Famous Like Me

Name: Sergei Rachmaninov  
Also Know As:
Date of Birth: 1st April 1873
Place of Birth: Vovgorod Prospect, Russia
Profession: Composer
From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia
Portrait of Sergei Rachmaninoff by Konstantin Somov 1925

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (Russian: Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов, Sergej Vasil'evič Rahmaninov, April 1, 1873 – March 28, 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. ("Sergei Rachmaninoff" was the spelling the composer himself used while living in the West throughout the latter half of his life, including when he became a United States citizen. However, alternative transliterations of his name include Sergey or Serge, and Rachmaninov, Rachmaninow, Rakhmaninov or Rakhmaninoff.)

While his reputation as composer only came later in life, Rachmaninoff's skill as pianist was well-known and highly respected; he often performed his own works as soloist. He was one of the greatest pianists of his generation, having legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover an interval of twelfth on the piano. Many recordings were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company recording label of him performing his own music as well as works from the standard repertoire.

His compositions include, among others, four piano concerti, three symphonies, two piano sonatas, three operas, a choral symphony (The Bells, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), a setting of the Vespers, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, 41 Preludes and Etudes, Symphonic Dances and many songs. Most of his pieces are in a late Romantic style akin to Tchaikovsky, although strong influences of Chopin and Liszt are apparent. Further inspiration included the music of Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Medtner (whom he considered the greatest contemporary composer) and Henselt.



Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, near Novgorod in north-western Russia, into a noble family which had been attested in the service of Russian tsars since the 16th century. His parents were both amateur pianists, and he had his first piano lessons with his mother on their family estate at Oneg; however, his parents noticed no outstanding talent in the youngster. Because of financial difficulties, the family moved to Saint Petersburg where Rachmaninoff studied at the Conservatory there, before moving to Moscow. There, he studied piano under Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (who was his cousin as well as a former student of Franz Liszt). He also studied harmony under Anton Arensky, and counterpoint under Sergei Taneyev. It should be noted that in his younger days, Rachmaninoff was found to be quite lazy, failing most of his classes and spending much time skating. It was the strict regime of the Zverev home (a place for many young musicians, including Scriabin) that instilled discipline in the boy.

Already in his early years he showed great skill in composition. While still a student, he wrote the one-act opera, Aleko (for which he was awarded a gold medal in composition), his first piano concerto and a set of piano pieces, Morceaux de Fantaisies (Op. 3, 1892), including the popular and famous Prelude in C-sharp minor — after 40 years of performing it as an encore at his piano recitals due to popular demand, he came to detest the piece. Rachmaninoff confided in Zverev his desire to compose more, requesting a private room where he could compose in silence, but Zverev saw him only as a pianist and severed his links with the boy. After the success of Aleko, however, Zverev welcomed him back as a composer and pianist. His first serious pieces for the piano were composed and performed as a student at the age of thirteen during his residence with Zverev. In 1892, at nineteen, he completed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (Op. 1, 1891), which he revised in 1917.

Initial setbacks

Rachmaninoff, from a 1921 Victor advertisement

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 (Op. 13, 1896) premiered on 27 March 1897, but was torn apart by critics (including a particularly vitriolic review by Cesar Cui, who likened it to a depiction of the seven plagues of Egypt, written for a conservatory in hell). Some have suggested that this was largely due to the conducting of Alexander Glazunov, who disliked the piece and under-rehearsed it; Rachmaninoff's wife later suggested that Glazunov may have been drunk. This disastrous reception, coupled with his distress over the Eastern Orthodox Church's objection to his marrying his cousin, Natalia Satina, led to a nervous breakdown.

He wrote little music over the following years, until he began a course of autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, an amateur musician himself. Rachmaninoff quickly recovered his confidence; an important result of these sessions was the composition of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (Op. 18, 1900–01), which was dedicated to Dr. Dahl. The piece was very well received at its premiere at which Rachmaninoff was soloist, and remains one of his most popular compositions. It has been used in the soundtrack to the films Brief Encounter, September Song and The Seven Year Itch, as well as having its themes made into popular songs in the 1940s, such as Full Moon and Empty Arms.

Rachmaninoff's spirits were further bolstered when, after years of engagement, he was finally allowed to marry Natalia. They were married by an army priest in 1902, and their union lasted until the composer's death. 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 two years later. In 1908, he moved to Italy, and later to Dresden, Germany, while waiting for the political situation in Russia to normalize.

Immigration to the US

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). This successful tour made him a popular figure in America, and he emigrated to New York following the Russian Revolution of 1917. After his departure his music was banned in the Soviet Union for several years. His compositional output slowed to some degree, partly because he was required to spend much of his time performing to support his family, but mainly because of homesickness; he felt that when he left Russia, it was as if he had left behind his inspiration. Nevertheless, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, today one of his best-known works, was written in Switzerland 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. He fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942, and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced melanoma. His last recital, given in February 1943, prophetically featured Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor which contains the famous funeral march. He died on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, and was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.


His first three piano concertos are widely considered to be among the greatest in the literature; certainly the second and third are among the most popular ever written. The third, in particular, has the reputation of being the most difficult concerto in the entire repertoire, and is a favorite among virtuoso pianists. Interpretations considered "definitive" are those by Vladimir Horowitz, a friend of Rachmaninoff; Byron Janis, the only student acknowledged by Horowitz; as well a recording by Rachmaninoff himself. Other noted interpreters of his music include Vladimir Ashkenazy, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Sviatoslav Richter, and Van Cliburn. His 'fifth concerto' is the Paganini Rhapsody.

Works for piano solo include the Preludes, Opp. 23 and 32 which, together with the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3/2, from Morceaux de Fantasie, traverse all 24 major and minor keys. Especially difficult are the Etudes Tableaux, which are literally very demanding study pictures. There are also the Moments Musicaux, Op. 16, and the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22. He wrote two piano sonatas, both of which are monumental works and fine post-romantic examples of the genre.

Rachmaninoff wrote 3 symphonies, the first of which, in D minor, was a monumental failure. He tore up the score and for many years it was believed lost; however after his death, the orchestral parts were found in the Leningrad Conservatory and the score was reconstructed, leading to its second performance (and American premiere) on 19 March 1948 at an all-Rachmaninoff concert marking the fifth anniversary of the composer's death. The second and third were much more popular. Other orchestral works include The Rock, Capriccio on Gypsy Themes, The Isle of the Dead, and the Symphonic Dances.

Rachmaninoff wrote two major choral works: the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom and the All Night Vigil or Vespers. The Bells, a work for choir and orchestra, is based on the translated poetry of Edgar Allan Poe; its four-movement program signifies the circle of life: youth, marriage, maturity, and death. The Vespers and The Bells are widely considered to be some of his finest works.

His chamber music includes the Trio Elegiaque, a piano trio written in memory of Tchaikovsky. Also well known is the Cello Sonata, which is really more aimed to show off the capacities of the piano than those of the cello. Nevertheless, it is a very finely crafted work.


Rachmaninoff's style is fundamentally Russian: his music shows the influence of the idol of his youth, Tchaikovsky. His harmonic language expanded above and beyond that of Tchaikovsky, however. Rachmaninoff's frequently used motifs include the Dies Irae, often just the fragments of the first phrase: this is especially prevalent in The Bells, The Isle of the Dead, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the First and Second Symphonies. The Second Symphony, in particular, has a marvelous and little known occurrence of the Dies Irae: in the second movement he uses it as the basis for the harmony in counterpoint to one of his archetypal soaring melodies.

Also especially important is the use of bell-like sounds: this occurs in many pieces, most notably the Second Piano Concerto and the B minor prelude. It is of course no coincidence that he wrote a cantata entitled "The Bells". He was also fond of Russian Orthodox chants. He uses them most obviously in his Vespers, but many of his melodies found their origins in these chants. The opening melodies of the Third Concerto and the First Symphony are both derived from chants.

In scherzo-like movements, he often used a modified rondo form, usually opening with a light, swift rhythmical idea, then supplying a breath of fresh air in the form of a beautifully romantic melody, to then end the piece in a similar scherzo-fashion. Examples of this may be found in the last movement of the Second Concerto, the scherzo of the Cello Sonata, and the scherzo of the Second Symphony.

Rachmaninoff had great command of counterpoint and fugal writing. The above-mentioned occurence of the Dies Irae in the Second Symphony is but a small example of this. Very characteristic of his writing is chromatic counterpoint.

His later works, such as the Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 40, 1926) and the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (Op. 42, 1931), are composed in a more emotionally detached style, making them less popular with audiences despite the striking originality of the music. In these later compositions, Rachmaninoff sought a greater sense of compression and motivic development in his works at the expense of melody. Nevertheless, some of his most beautiful (nostalgic and melancholy) melodies occur in the Third Symphony, Paganini Rhapsody, and Symphonic Dances, the latter of which is considered his swan song and has almost metaphysical references to the Alliluya of the Vespers and the first theme of his First Symphony.

Recordings on shellac and paper rolls

Rachmaninoff made his first recordings for Edison Records on their "Diamond Disc" records, since they claimed the best audio fidelity in recording the piano at the time. Rachmaninoff did not consider himself a great pianist and believed his own performances to be variable in quality; he therefore requested to personally approve any recorded performances to be commercially issued. Despite this, the Edison Company issued multiple alternative takes of Rachmaninoff's recordings, a common occurrence in the gramophone record industry at the time, possibly for reasons of simple carelessness or because of the ease of mass production of records from multiple masters.

Rachmaninoff was so angered by this that he left Edison and subsequently started recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company and its successor, RCA Victor. The company was pleased to abide by Rachmaninoff's restrictions, and proudly advertised him as one of the great artists who recorded for the Victor Company. Rachmaninoff also made a number of piano rolls; initially disbelieving that a roll of punched paper could provide an accurate record, he was invited to listen to a master roll of his first recording in 1919 for the Ampico company. After the performance, he was quoted as saying "Gentleman — I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!" He continued to record for Ampico until around 1929.

Music samples

Sample from Piano Concerto No. 2 (info)
Piano Concerto No. 2, 30-second sample of opening theme from 1st movement (Moderato), Vladimir Ashkenazy, London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, 1972
Sample from Piano Concerto No. 3 (info)
Piano Concerto No. 3, 30-second sample from 1st movement (Allegro ma non tanto) (5min 33sec), Vladimir Ashkenazy, London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn, 1972
Problems listening to the files? See media help.

This content from Wikipedia is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Sergei Rachmaninov