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Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1 April 1873 – 28 March 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor, one of the last great champions of the Romantic style of European classical music.
Rachmaninoff is regarded as one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century. He had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard (a hand span of approximately twelve inches). According to fellow composer Igor Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff stood 6 feet 6 inches (198 cm) tall. He also had the ability to play complex compositions upon first hearing. Many recordings were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company recording label of Rachmaninoff performing his own music, as well as works from the standard repertoire.
Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, near Novgorod in north-western Russia, into an aristocratic family with strong musical and military leanings. His parents were both amateur pianists, and he had his first piano lessons with his mother on their family estate at Oneg. Due to financial troubles, the family moved to Saint Petersburg, where Rachmaninoff studied at the Conservatory before moving to Moscow alone to study piano under Nikolai Zverev and Alexander Siloti (who was his cousin and a former student of Franz Liszt). He also studied harmony under Anton Arensky, and counterpoint under Sergei Taneyev. Rachmaninoff was found to be quite lazy, failing most of his classes, and it was the strict regime of the Zverev home that instilled discipline in the boy.
In his early years, Rachmaninoff 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 Fantaisie (Op. 3, 1892), which includes the popular and famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. The composer later became annoyed by the public’s fascination with this piece, composed when he was just nineteen years old. He would often tease an expectant audience in the days when it was traditional for the audience to request particular compositions, by asking, "Oh, must I?" or claiming inability to remember anything else. In Moscow, he met the prominent composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who became an important mentor and commissioned the teenage Rachmaninoff to arrange a piano transcription of the suite from his ballet, Sleeping Beauty. 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. He moved out and continued to compose.
The sudden death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 made a strong impression on Rachmaninoff, affecting his emotional state, his personality as well as his creativity. Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 (Op. 13, 1896) premiered on 27 March 1897 in one of a long-running series of "Russian Symphony Concerts," but was torn apart by critics. However, the criticisms stem from inadequacy of the performance; the conducting of Alexander Glazunov is often remembered as a problem: he liked the piece, but was a weak conductor and starved of rehearsal time. Rachmaninoff's wife and other witnesses later suggested that Glazunov may have been drunk and, although this was never intimated by Rachmaninoff, it would not seem out of character. The disastrous reception of his Symphony No 1, a negative review from writer Leo Tolstoy, and his distress over the Eastern Orthodox Church's objection to the composer’s marriage to his cousin, Natalia Satina, contributed to a period of severe depression.
Rachmaninoff wrote little music over the following years, until he began a course of therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, who himself was an amateur musician. Rachmaninoff quickly recovered confidence and overcame his writer's block. A result of these sessions was the composition of Piano Concerto No. 2 (Op. 18, 1900–01), 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.
Rachmaninoff's spirit was further bolstered when, after years of engagement, he was finally allowed to marry Natalia. They were married in a suburb of Moscow by an army priest on 29 April 1902, using the family's military background to subvert the church. Although the composer had an affair with the 22-year-old singer Nina Koshetz in 1916, his and Natalia's union lasted until the composer's death. After several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninoff was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in 1904, although political reasons led to his resignation in March 1906, after which he stayed in Italy until July. He spent the following three winters in Dresden, Germany, intensively composing, and returning to the family estate of Ivanovka every summer.
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) as a calling card. This successful tour made him a popular figure in America.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, which meant the end of the old Russia, and the loss of his estate, on 22 December 1917, Rachmaninoff with his wife and two daughters left Saint Petersburg for Helsinki on an open sledge, having only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions. Then he took a train to Stockholm, arriving there for Christmas. They never returned to their homeland. Rachmaninoff then settled in Denmark and spent a year giving concerts in Scandinavia. He left Oslo and went to New York on 1 November 1918, which marked the beginning of the American period of the composer's life. After Rachmaninoff's departure, his music was banned in the Soviet Union for several years. His compositional output slowed, 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 some of his inspiration. A more obvious reason to cut down on composing was that he was in great demand as a concert pianist, and touring took most of his time and energy. While still in Russia, he had about ten pieces in his piano repertoire (that is, of other composers; in Russia he mostly performed his own compositions). When he came to the US, Rachmaninoff re-invented himself as a concert pianist; in fact he became one of the top pianists of his generation, the generation that is now referred to as the Golden Age of Piano Playing.
After emigration, Rachmaninoff had an extremely busy concert schedule. He played over a thousand solo piano concerts in America, in addition to his tours in Europe. He made over one hundred studio recordings of his own music as well as the music of his favorites, Chopin and Beethoven, among others. Due to his busy concert career, Rachmaninoff had a decreased output as composer. Between 1892 and 1917 (living mostly in Russia), Rachmaninoff wrote thirty-nine compositions with opus numbers. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, while living in the U.S. and Europe, he completed only six. His revival as composer became possible only after he built himself a new home, Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. There, in the comfort of his own villa which reminded him of this family estate Ivanovka back in Russia, Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Settling in the U.S., Rachmaninoff began making recordings for Thomas Edison in 1919, recording on an upright piano that the inventor admitted was below average; however, the discs provided the composer with some much-needed income. The next year he signed an exclusive contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company and continued to make recordings for Victor until February 1942.
In 1931, together with other Russian exiles, he helped found a music school in Paris which would later bear his name, the Conservatoire Rachmaninoff. His Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, today one of his best-known works, was written in his home, Villa Senar, 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. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the Symphonic Dances in 1941 in the Academy of Music. Rachmaninoff fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942, and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced sarcoma.
Rachmaninoff and his wife became American citizens on 1 February 1943. His last recital, given on 17 February 1943 at the Alumni Gymnasium of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, prophetically featured Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor, which contains the famous Funeral March. As Rachmaninoff became more and more aware of the fact that he would never again return to his beloved homeland, he was overwhelmed with melancholia. Most people who knew him later in life described him as the saddest man they had ever known.
Rachmaninoff died on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, just four days before his 70th birthday, and was interred on June 1 in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
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 in all of his symphonies.
Especially important is Rachmaninoff's use of unusually wide-spread chords for bell-like sounds: this occurs in many pieces, most notably in the cantata The Bells, the Second Piano Concerto, the E flat major Etude-Tableaux (Op. 33 No. 7), and the B-minor prelude (Op. 32 No. 10). He was also fond of Russian Orthodox chants. He used them most perceptibly in his Vespers, but many of his melodies found their origins in these chants.
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 motive development in his works at the expense of melody. Nevertheless, some of his most beautiful (nostalgic and melancholy) melodies occur in the Third Symphony, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Symphonic Dances, the last-named of which is considered his swan song, and which has references to the Alliluya of the Vespers and the first theme of his First Symphony (neither of which would have been recognized by most listeners at the premiere).
Rachmaninoff's pianism is generally considered among the finest of the twentieth century. It displayed features characteristic of the Russian school of piano playing: effortless technical ability; interpretative freedom; creative freedom in dynamics and phrasing.
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