Sergei Rachmaninoff completed a stunning body of work due to his self discipline and high standards. Despite this, he suffered from self-doubt and wondered if he made the best-use of his time on earth because he couldn’t decide if he was a conductor, pianist or composer. “His inspiration lie in the Romantic tradition of 19th-century Russian music.” While Rachmaninoff studied at the Moscow Conservatory of Music, Tchaikovsky heard his music and predicted a great future for him. Rachmaninoff subsequently met Tchaikovsky who advised him, and you can see the influence in his music.
Name: Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (Rakmaninov)
Birth Date: April 1873 – March 1943
Job Functions: Composer, Pianist and Conductor
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Oneg, Russia. After Rachmaninoff’s father Vasily Rakhmaninov squandered the family’s financial wealth, they moved to St Petersburg in 1882 where they lived in a small flat. From an early age, Rachmaninoff’s musical abilities shone, and from 1882 to 1885, he attended the Saint Petersburg Conservatory where he studied under Vladimir Demiansky. Rachmaninoff was so absorbed in piano and music to the exclusion of other subjects that he risked dismissal from the conservatory.
Aleksandr Ziloti, piano virtuoso, and Rachmaninoff’s cousin, advised him to transfer to Moscow Conservatory where he could focus on his music, and study with him (Ziloti) and Nikolai Zverev. While at Moscow Conservatory, in 1886, Rachmaninoff’s courses included harmony with, and later composition with Sergei Taneev and piano with Ziloti. After taking these two classes Rachmaninoff became very interested in composition, even though he became a pianist.
Zverev was not pleased with Rachmaninoff’s interest in composition so he had to complete his studies with Ziloti. In 1891, Rachmaninoff composed his first piece First Piano Concerto in F-sharp Minor, Op 1, which he later felt was his opus. He completed his piano studies in 1891 and his composition course in 1892. Upon graduation he received the Great Gold Medal in composition for his opera Aleko, the highest honour from the conservatory, which had been awarded only twice before to Taneev in 1875 and Arseny Koreschenko in 1891.
After graduation, Rachmaninoff taught at two girls’ schools, an occupation which gave him no pleasure. During the three years he did this, he composed his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, which shortly became one of the most popular piano pieces in the world. Some of his other works included: an opera (Aleko, 1892), The Bells (a dramatic choral symphony composed in 1910), three instrumental symphonies, three other piano concertos, the Vocalise (two versions, 1916 and 1919) and other songs, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), and the Symphonic Dances (1940).
In 1897 his First Concerto was played in St. Petersburg and it was an absolute disaster. The critics were merciless, and the experience left Rachmaninoff shaken and questioning his abilities. He became depressed and unable to compose for a few years. Fortunately for Rachmaninoff, he sought help from physician Nikolai Dahl to cure his mental depression. With daily therapy for three months, his self esteem and musical abilities were bolstered.
In 1901, Rachnminoff completed his Second Piano Concerto, C Minor, Op. 18, which he dedicated to Dahl. It became an instant success and one of the most frequently performed pieces. He married his first cousin Natalia Satina in May 1902. Rachmaninoff’s influence in music quickly spread throughout Russia. With the success of his compositions, Rachmaninoff was appointed conductor at the Bolshoi Theater (1904 – 1906). “With his Bolshoi conducting debut on September 3, 1904, in Gargomizhsky’s Rusalka, he (Rachmaninoff) singlehandedly revolutionized performance practice at the Russian imperial opera houses, positioning the conductor’s podium not in front of the stage, but, in contemporary European manner, in front of the orchestra.”
All the administrative functions which accompanied the position of a conductor prevented Rachmaninoff from composing. Between autumn 1905 to spring 1909 he lived with his family in Dresden – a city with a vibrant music life – and it was during that time he adopted Rachmaninoff, the French version of Rakhmaninov. During his time in Dresden, Rachmaninoff devoted his time to composing. On November 4, 1909, he made his debut in a recital at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts in the United States. On November 28th he appeared as a soloist in the world premier of his Third Piano Concerto, in D Minor, Op. 30 in New York City with the New York Symphony Orchestra conducted by Walter Damrosch. Rachmaninoff created such a splash in the United States that he was offered conductorship of the Boston Symphony orchestra which he declined.
He returned to Moscow where he lived from 1910 to 1917. Some of his time in Moscow was spent conducting the Moscow Philharmonic Society Orchestra where he performed Bach, Debussy, Strauss among others. During this period, Rachmaninoff composed Thirteen Preludes (1910), Six Etudes Tableaux (1911), The Bells (1913), based on Konstantine Balmont’s Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem of the same name; Vesper Mass (1913), and the Vespers op. 37 and Nine Efudes Tableaux.
With the coming of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia. With his hasty departure from Russia, Rachmaninoff and his family lost everything. Rachmaninoff spent 10 months giving concerts in Scandinavia to financially support his wife and children. He was accustomed to playing his pieces almost exclusively, so Rachmaninoff also dedicated some of his time to learning recital programs. He secured an American visa on October 24, 1918, and arrived in New York City on November 10, 1918. Rachmaninoff began his career in the United States as a traveling virtuoso. His repertoire ran the gamut from Daquin, and Bach to Ravel and Poulenc.
Each season, Racahmaninoff divided his time between the US and Europe. His packed performance schedule prevented him from devoting sufficient time to his composing. Rachmaninoff composed his Fourth Piano Concerto (1927); Third Symphony in A Minor (1936), a stunning work whose structure is studied in music school composition classes; and Symphonic Dances for Orchestra (1941). His Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra (1934) was an astounding success.
Conflict raged within Rachmaninoff because he could never decide if he was a pianist, a conductor or a composer. He was troubled and felt that because he didn’t focus he never made the “best use” of his life. Despite Rachmaninoff’s self-doubt, he was very busy and a well sought after piano virtuoso. He went on concert tours and his body of musical works set a high standard for piano excellence in the twentieth century. Some of Rachmaninoff’s music were included in film scores, among these was the eerie music of Isle of the Dead in a 1945 film with Boris Karloff.
Although Rachmaninoff’s music was banned in Soviet Russia for more than seventy years, his music is as much admired in his homeland as the music of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Stravinsky. Rachmaninoff died in 1943 from a malignant carcinomatosis.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Body of Work
- Wrote over 70 songs
- Three published operas – Aleko, The Miserly Knight, Francesca da Riminii and the unfinished Monna Vanna
- Orchestral works – three symphonies and two symphonic poems (Isle of the Dead Op. 29 is one)
- Chamber music – a cello sonata, two piano trios, and two short pieces for string quartet
- Choral work – The Bells
- Nearly a hundred piano pieces, including two sonatas, two notable sets of variations, and two suites for two pianos.
Sergei Rachmaninoff may not be well known outside of the music circle but he made his contribution to humankind.
Lessons from Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Do not look externally for gratification: When the critics gave Rachmaninoff a very poor review he went into a tailspin into the throes of depression which lasted a long time. Look within yourself for your satisfaction and fulfillment. Have a support network or mentors that you can call on, if you need to talk through criticisms.
- Focus, focus, focus: Because he couldn’t focus on whether he wanted conductor, pianist or composer, Rachmaninoff suffered from self-doubt and wondered if he wasted his time on earth.
- Do not waste your time on regrets: Most people regret the things they never do. Yes Rachmaninoff spent time wondering if he wasted his time on earth because of his lack of focus, but the good thing is that he tried all three functions – conductor, pianist and composer – and knew that he liked them. The next step would be to find which one he liked the best, or figure out a way to make his life work to his datisfaction.
- You can start over if you have skills: He lost everything during the Bolshevik Revolution, but Rachmaninoff still had his skills and ability so he started over in a new place and once again found success.
Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov – Prelude in C Sharp Minor
If you cannot view the YouTube video of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor click here.
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Encyclopedia of World Biography
Dictionary of American Biography
American National Biography
Encyclopedia of Russian History
Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians
What Was the Matter With Rachmaninoff, Terry Teachout
YouTube Video Credit: bambee
- Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff (kiwsparks.wordpress.com)