"I have never been able to make up my mind as to what was my true calling -- that of composer, pianist, or conductor . . . I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best use of my life."
-Rachmaninoff, on his life
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff is one of the most beloved and
celebrated composers of all time. Rachmaninoff grew up following a
grand tradition of Russian music, often idolizing the Russian great
Peter I. Tchaikovsky. Although
Rachmaninoff struggled through many psychological problems
throughout his lifetime and developed a cold, icy shell around
himself, his music is still some of the warmest and revealing ever
Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 into a troubled household in the Novgorod province in Russia. Although his family was relatively wealthy and lived on an estate called Semyonovo, Sergei's father Vasily quickly depleted the family's fortune through gambling and drinking. Soon, Vasily Rachmaninoff left his family in shambles, povert and sick with diphtheria. In fact, Sergei's sister Sofia soon died soon after these events.
Sergei Rachmaninoff's talents at the piano were evident from an early age. His mother began teaching him to play at the young age of 5. Four years later in 1882, Rachmaninoff began attending the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Rachmaninoff was a somewhat typical child and often skipped and failed classes. Sergei also forged his report cards to pretend that his grades were still decent. Soon, Rachmaninoff was failing every class and transferred to the Moscow Conservatory. In the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff was able to study under some of the greatest Russian musicians of all time, such as Nikolai Zverev, Peter I. Tchaikovsky, and Anton Arensky.
Soon, Rachmaninoff began exercising his great talent for composing music and turned out his c# minor Prelude in 1892. This instant success earned Rachmaninoff recognition around the globe. Unfortunately, Sergei was not an experienced businessman and his publishers had tricked him into letting them take most of the profits. This did not slow him down, though, and he continued writing music at a fantastic rate. After Tchaikovsky's death in 1893, Rachmaninoff wrote the Trio Élégiac #2, op.9 to commemorate Tchaikovsky's influence on Sergei.
In 1897 Rachmaninoff released his First Symphony. In its debut, the conductor of the orchestra, Alexander Glazunov, was rumored to be drunk and gave a subsequently horrible performance. Although today's musician recognize Rachmaninoff's First Symphony as a great piece, the first performance was so bad that Sergei Rachmaninoff became the laughing stock of his fellow musicians.
The trauma caused by the extreme failure of one of his pieces took its toll on Rachmaninoff. After the failure of his First Symphony, Sergei stopped composing for three years and battled extreme depression. Rachmaninoff struggled to reenter the music world as a conductor, perhaps, but not a composer. Eventually, the Philharmonic Society of London asked Rachmaninoff to conduct and perform one of his own pieces in Queen's Hall. The Philharmonic Society probably meant for Rachmaninoff to perform his First Concerto, which had already been written, but instead Rachmaninoff decided to write a brand new concerto.
Rachmaninoff instantly ran into writer's block when trying to compose this new concerto. His three year drought of composing had taken its toll on his creative instinct and he could not come up with any good ideas. Eventually, Rachmaninoff turned to Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a prominent psychologist, for psychological help. Dr. Dahl used hypnosis to help stimulate Rachmaninoff's mind. The hypnosis apparently worked, because Rachmaninoff quickly created his most famous and popular work: his Second Piano Concerto. With great gratitude, Rachmaninoff dedicated this brilliant and beautiful work to Dr. Nikolai Dahl.
The next year, Rachmaninoff married his cousin Natalia
Alexandrovna Satin. Their daughter, Irina Rachmaninoff, was born in
1903 and eventually married Prince Pyotr Volknosky. With the rise
of communism in Russia, Rachmaninoff began to think about leaving
his native country. Starting in 1909, Sergei began making yearly
tours to the United States. In 1918, Rachmaninoff moved permanently
to New York where he lived for the rest of his life.
His Famous Compositions
Many of Rachmaninoff's works have quickly become the most beloved and famous romantic pieces in the classical repertoire. Rachmaninoff's most famous work may be the difficult Second Piano Concerto, aka "Rach 2" and "Rocky 2". As mentioned earlier, this concerto was written after a 3 year period of no composing. It is a very distinctive and beautiful piece with many stirring yet simple melodies.
Another of Rachmaninoff's most famous compositions is his Third Piano Concerto. This long and difficult concerto is extremely popular within the piano community for its difficulty and profound beauty. Again, this piece is extremely difficult and is known for its requirement of "knuckle-busting" technique.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is another of Rachmaninoff's
most famous works. This piece is written in the form of theme and
variations of one of Paganini's themes. The piece is written for
piano and orchestra, as are most of Rachmaninoff's pieces. The
reason for this is that Rachmaninoff was a pianist and wanted to be
able to perform most of his pieces. The Rhapsody on a Theme of
Paganini explores the seemingly simple theme by Paganini and
converts it into many varied transformations.
Other links of interest: