Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer who lived in the 20th Century. His early works were very much influenced by other famous Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev and Mussorgsky. However as he became more established he created his own style.
Sergei was born into aristocratic family and was the fourth of six children. His father, Vasily was an army officer and amateur pianist and he married Lyubov who was the daughter of a rich army officer.
Given the Rachmaninoff’s quote below describing his father – I am guessing that they weren’t very close!… “a wastrel, compulsive gambler, a pathological liar and skirt chaser!
At the age of four Lyubov arranged for formal piano lessons for Sergei. Rachmaninoff’s piano composition “Spring Waters” from 12 Romances, Op.14 was dedicated to that teacher.
His Music and Family
In 1892 he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory. In the Summer of 1893 he composed many pieces including Fantaisie-Tableaux (No.1, Op.5) and Moreceaux (Op.10) whilst spending time with friends.
The premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No.1 was disastrous taking place under the baton of the incompetent (& often drunk!) Glazunov. The critics ripped it apart having a devastating effect of Rachmaninoff leading to four years of depression. His Symphony No.1 was never performed again during his lifetime.
Thankfully after receiving professional help Rachmaninoff emerged from his depression and in 1901 he completed his first work; Piano Concerto No.2. for which he received a prestigious award. It’s use in the Brief Encounter has made it a continual favourite.
Rachmaninoff married his second cousin in 1902, despite this not being permitted in Russia. They honeymooned for three months in Europe (obviously he wasn’t doing to badly!). On his return he resumed his position as a music teacher during which he wrote his largest piano composition to date; the Variations on a Theme of Chopin (op.22). The couple went on to have two daughters
Rachmaninoff decided on a career change from composing as a consequence of family illness and took on the position as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre. He had reputation for being particularly strict and demanding of high standards. After two seasons he lost interest and the family took an extended trip to Italy with the idea that he would create new works but again his family were struck by illness and his only option was to return to composing.
Due to the continuing political unrest in Russia the family moved to Dresden in Germany for a about four years. It was here that he wrote his Symphony No.2 which despite his difficulty writing it was a resounding success and remains one of this most popular works! (Here’s a clip).. It was subsequently used in the film Brief Encounter.
He was offered a tour of the United States – which was incredibly successful – he did 26 performances. He was offered further work including one to conduct for the Boston Symphony, however he declined preferring to return to his family.
In 1917 Rachmaninoff and his family left the Russia he know longer knew by sled to Helsinki and took on a new career as a concert pianist.
Then in 1918 he moved to the United States where he was in huge demand. Over the next several years he toured the US enabling him to become financially secure and he actually built a house in Los Angeles which was a replica of his one in Moscow. His tough schedule affected his time to write and from the time he arrived in the US in 1918 to his death in 1943 he only wrote six compositions.
In 1942 Rachmaninoff became ill and his health deteriorated. Despite this he continued to tour but had to cancel the final performances in Florida.
He died four days before his seventieth birthday…
Sergei Rachmaninoff had incredibly big hands which could span 12 keys… making some of his works difficult to play!