Sergei Rachmaninov

(1 April 1873 - 28 March 1943)

Rachmaninov was one of the most virtuosic pianists of his day and the last big name among the late Russian Romantics. He possessed a unique, highly personal language, rich with lyrical qualities, expression, structural ingenuity and diverse orchestral colours. The piano features prominently in his works, as a solo instrument and as part of an ensemble.

Rachmaninov studied piano at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and then at the Moscow Conservatory with Nikolai Zverev. It was through Zverev that Rachmaninov met Anton Rubinstein and Pyotr Tchaikovsky at his usual Sunday afternoon gatherings. Zverev, however, encouraged Rachmaninov to study only piano, completely unsupportive of his wish to compose. Rachmaninov and two other students were living at Zverev’s flat, where Zverev was known to be a severe disciplinarian, ensuring that his pupils were up at 6am practicing each day. As time went on, Rachmaninov found it increasingly difficult to compose in Zverev’s house, due to the sound of several people practicing piano around the clock. His request for more privacy led to him being banished from the flat by Zverev, who refused to speak to him for three years.

During the summer months of his youth, he went to Ivanovka, the country estate of his aristocratic cousins in the Tambov region, his main place of inspiration, where 85% of his output was conceived and developed. Shortly after graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, he began his Piano Concerto no. 1, op.1 and the 11th of February was Rachmaninov's first public concert, aged 19, performing for the first time his Trio élégiaque no. 1.

I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me.

Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, op. 13 was premiered in March 1897, which faced very negative critiques. Cui reckoned ‘it would be admired by inmates in the conservatory of music in hell’. Rachmaninov fell into a depression after the event, which lasted three years, a time in which he wrote next to nothing.

In 1900, Rachmaninov attended therapy with Dr Nikolai Dahl and managed to overcome his creative block. In 1901 he wrote his Piano Concerto no. 2 and dedicated it to his psychologist, Dr Dahl. The same year he completed his Cello Sonata and also gave the premiere of his Second Suite for two pianos, together with his cousin Ziloti. His style had developed and matured considerably since the disaster of his first symphony.

A good conductor ought to be a good chauffeur; the qualities that make the one also make the other. They are concentration, an incessant control of attention, and presence of mind; the conductor only has to add a little sense of music.

His next piano concerto was written specially for his tour to the United States. The famously virtuosic Piano Concerto no. 3, op. 30 was premiered in New York on November 28, 1909 by Rachmaninov himself. It was performed several weeks later, under the baton of Gustav Mahler, ‘an experience Rachmaninov treasured.’ The first movement revolves around a diatonic melody, which subsequently develops into intricate pianistic figuration, before reaching several different climaxes, the ultimate one being the majestic cadenza.

In 1918, Rachmaninov and his wife and daughters moved to Stockholm and then Copenhagen. It was in this period that he realised that he could much more easily support his family by earning a larger, steadier income as a concert pianist rather than as a composer and from that point until his death 25 years later, he completed only six new works. In November 1918, the family arrived in New York, where Rachmaninov found an agent and immediately began a busy concert schedule of about 40 concerts in four months.

By the 1930s, the family was back in Europe, this time in Switzerland, where Rachmaninov wrote the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and the Third Symphony. The Rhapsody is a set of 24 variations, based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice in A minor for solo violin. The most famous variation is the eighteenth, a slow melody based on an inversion of the melody in D flat major, marked by its lush string passages.

With the threat of war, the Rachmaninov family moved once again to the USA, this time settling in Beverly Hills. There, in the autumn of 1940, he completed his last piece, Symphonic Dances. The dances are representative of his very late style and on the 17th of February 1943, he gave his last ever concert in Knoxville, Tennessee less than a month before his death.

Do not waste your time with music that is trite or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash.

Gustav Mahler

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