Who was Rachmaninov?

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was a Russian-American composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor. Excelling in two spheres, Rachmaninov was certainly one of the finest pianists of his (or perhaps any) era, and was also perhaps the last great flowering of Romanticism in Russian classical music.

When was Rachmaninov born?

Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1 April, 1873, into an aristocratic Russian family. The Rachmaninov family had both musical and military connections. The composer's paternal grandfather, Arkady Alexandrovich, was a musician who had learned with the Irish composer John Field, while his father Vasily Arkadievich Rachmaninoff was an army officer and amateur pianist.

A young Sergey Rachmaninov
A young Sergey Rachmaninov

The latter married Lyubov Petrovna Butakova, the daughter of a rich army general. Her dowry included no fewer than five country estates! The couple had three sons and three daughters: Sergey was their third child.

Where did Rachmaninov grow up?

The future composer was born in one of these five family estates, in the village of Semyonovo, near Staraya Russa, some 400 miles north-west of Moscow. When the youbng Sergey was four, the family moved to another house in Oneg estate, about 110 miles further north. Sergey spent the next five years of his childhood there, and wrongly believed it was his birthplace.

When did Rachmaninov start playing the piano?

The composer was born into a musical family, and started learning the piano at the age of four. He later studied with composers Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev at the Moscow Conservatory (the young Alexander Scriabin was one of his classmates). By the time he graduated from there in 1892, the young Rachmaninov had already composed several piano and orchestral pieces including the short orchestral Scherzo in D Minor, the lost 'Youth' Symphony, the aforementioned Prelude and the First Piano Concerto.

Who influenced Rachmaninov?

You can hear echoes of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers in Rachmaninov's earlier output, such as Symphony No. 1 or the early Morceaux de Fantaisie piano pieces, which include the famous Prelude in C sharp minor.

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Later, Rachmaninov acquired his own very personal musical fingerprint. Long, lyrical, song-like melodic lines, rich orchestration and an ability to convey extremes of emotion in music: all these are hallmarks of the later (and better known) Rachmaninov.

A hugely skilled, uniquely communicative pianist, Rachmaninov composed extensively for his instrument, including four piano concertos and many works for solo piano.

What happened at the premiere of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1?

A few years later, in 1897, the composer's First Symphony was ready for its first public performance. However, the work had a disastrous start that very nearly killed off Rachmaninov's composing ambitions.

The work's premiere was conducted by fellow Russian composer Alexander Glazunov. However, the piece was under-rehearsed and Glazunov was very possibly drunk on the evening itself. Whatever the causes, the premiere was a disaster and sent poor Rachmaninov into a deep depression.

How did Rachmaninov compose his Piano Concerto No. 2?

Following this catastrophe, Rachmaninov composed very little for four years, when a successful programme of therapy gave him the necessary creative breakthrough to complete Piano Concerto No. 2. It's now one of the composer's very best known and best loved works: here are some of our recommendations for Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2 best recordings.

In the course of the next sixteen years, Rachmaninov conducted at the Bolshoi Theatre, relocated to Dresden, Germany, and toured the United States for the first time.
Following the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninov and his family left Russia, and in 1918 they settled in New York City.

With his primary source of income coming from performances as a pianist and a conductor, Rachmaninov had little time to compose. Because of this, he completed just six works between 1918 and his death in 1943, including the famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and the wonderful Symphonic Dances with their vibrant colours and driving rhythms.

Why is Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 so famous?

Apart from the piece's innate beauty and heart-on-sleeve emotionalism, Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 is well known for its appearance in the classic 1945 romantic film Brief Encounter.

Did Rachmaninov marry?

Yes. In 1902, soon after the huge success of his Piano Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninov married Natalia Satina after a three-year engagement.

The two were first cousins, which meant that the marriage was forbidden under Russian state and church law. However, the couple made use of their military background to hold a small wedding ceremony in a chapel belonging to a Moscow army barracks. They received a house on the family estate at Ivanovka, and set off on a three-month honeymoon around Europe.

Rachmaninov at Ivanovka
Sergey Rachmaninov (second left) at his country estate of Ivanovka in the mid 1890s. His future wife Natalia Satina is seated centre

What is Rachmaninov's reputation now?

Rachmaninov and the appreciation of his music have come a long way since 1954, when the fifth edition of Grove’s Dictionary confidently predicted that ‘the enormous popular success some few of Rachmaninov’s works had in his lifetime is not likely to last’. In the intervening years, not only have those few works maintained their place in the repertory, but also many others previously disregarded or unknown have gained a wide and keen following.

During the last 25 years of his life, following the family’s emigration from Russia after the 1917 October Revolution, Rachmaninov’s reputation as a composer fell victim to his success as a pianist. 1917 was as much a watershed in his own career as it was for Russia as a whole.

Between 1890 and 1917 Rachmaninov composed the bulk of his music – the first two symphonies and his tone poem The Isle of the Dead; the three operas Aleko, The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini, and the beginnings of another one, Monna Vanna; the major choral works, including Spring, The Bells and the All-night Vigil; the first three piano concertos (and parts of the fourth); all his solo piano preludes and Ètudes-tableaux; all his 80 or so songs.

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Rachmaninov had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in piano in 1891, then in composition the following year. But he always considered himself as a composer first and a pianist second, and in the decades before he left Russia, that is how the public principally viewed him too. Afterwards, the emphasis shifted sharply towards life as a travelling pianist, with only a handful of new works to show for the years 1918 to 1943.

Is it true that Rachmaninov had very big hands?

Rachmaninov's great fame as a pianist rested in part on his incredible technical perfection. It's widely believed, for example, that the pianist/composer's large hands were able to stretch a twelfth (in other words, one and a half octaves - the stretch from middle C to high G, for example).

Rachmaninov's large hands may have been a sign of a condition called Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue.

How good a pianist was Rachmaninov?

Rachmaninov is often considered the greatest pianist of all time. His expressive style at the piano comes down partly to the fact that he considered himself a Romantic, and continued to inject that movement's expressive, emotional qualities into his pianism.

Did Rachmaninov visit Britain?

His experiences in Britain reflect the split of his career into two parts. When Rachmaninov first came to London in 1899, it was to conduct his orchestral fantasy The Rock, with the additional lure of hearing him play the already wildly popular Prelude in C sharp minor, together with the Elégie from the same Op. 3 set of pieces.

He had to overcome the English critical establishment’s suspicion of anything and anybody Russian – Russian music was then deemed a ‘fad’ or ‘vogue’. But, to judge from contemporary reviews, his music was taken seriously.

Gradually, the Second and Third Concertos were introduced, either with Rachmaninov or other pianists playing them, and in 1910, when he performed the Second Concerto and conducted the Second Symphony at the Leeds Festival, the notices were as extensive as those for Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony, also being premiered.

Where did Rachmaninov live in Russia?

For composition Rachmaninov needed peace and quiet. In Russia, he found it at Ivanovka, the estate set deep in the countryside, about 500 kilometres to the south-east of Moscow. Ivanovka is scarcely any easier to get to today than it must have been in Rachmaninov’s time, but its very remoteness had provided a haven from the noise and irritations of Moscow. Practically all the music he wrote in Russia had some association with Ivanovka, be it the preliminary thinking, the actual composition, the orchestration or proof-reading. From 1890 to 1917, Rachmaninov spent almost every summer there.

Even before the Revolution, his talents as a pianist were being recognised, so when he made his decision to leave Russia in 1917, the transition from composition to keyboard was not a severe problem. It was, in fact, a dire necessity.

He and his family had had to abandon their property and money in Russia; his treasured country estate at Ivanovka had been razed to the ground. And from the time he sailed across the Atlantic on 1 November 1918 until his final recital at Knoxville, Tennessee, on 17 February 1943, the need to earn a living forced him to push composition to one side.

As some recompense, he was lionised throughout Europe and the United States as one of the finest and most sought-after pianists the world had ever known. This was all the more remarkable considering Rachmaninov had an unshakeable aversion to performing on the wireless and, more than once, refused to allow his concerts to be broadcast.

When did Rachmaninov die?

By 1942, his declining health led to his relocation to Beverly Hills, California, and later became a US citizen a few weeks before he died of advanced melanoma in 1943.

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The rebuilding and opening up of the Ivanovka estate from the 1970s onwards have been among the most important developments for any student of Rachmaninov’s music. Ivanovka helps one understand the nature of the intense stillness in which he worked – soundless save for the rustling of trees, limitless in the flat expanses of the surrounding steppe.

His peripatetic life after 1917 meant he could rarely find such tranquillity in which to write music, nor indeed the time to do so amid incessant concert tours and practice. On occasion, the family rented a holiday villa in France, where he wrote the Corelli Variations; then in the 1930s Rachmaninov built a villa overlooking Lake Lucerne, where again he could surround himself with silence: the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was a result.

The Romantic strengths of his music have always struck a particular chord in Russian hearts. In the United States, the great leap forward in Rachmaninov studies came with the 1956 publication of Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda’s classic Sergei Rachmaninov: a Lifetime in Music.

In Britain, however, the grudging views expressed in 1954 by Grove suggested a widespread indifference, a general misapprehension of Rachmaninov as a pianist who happened to have written some music. Performances concentrated on the same few works that had become popular and it wasn’t until the run-up to his 1973 centenary year that the climate changed – Vladimir Ashkenazy gave a complete cycle of the works for piano and orchestra in 1968, and André Previn championed the symphonies with the LSO in the 1970s.

Nowadays, there is scarcely a single work of Rachmaninov’s that is not on disc, while research on him is carried out worldwide. Whole academic conferences are devoted to him, and performances of his work seek out perspectives that are hidden within a musical personality long misunderstood.

What are Rachmaninov's most famous works?

Rachmaninov's most famous works include Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, Symphony No. 2, the Symphonic Dances, the tone poem The Isle of the Dead, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the early Prelude in C sharp minor.

What is Rachmaninov's legacy?

Most of Rachmaninov's opulent, emotional, songlike music was composed in the 20th century, at a time when musical movements like Serialism and Modernism were starting to gain traction. But you wouldn't know it from Rachmaninov's music.

He followed in the footsteps of his idol, Tchaikovsky, in writing music with sublime melodies, lush orchestration, and truly Romantic ambitions in terms of moods and emotions conveyed.

As such, Rachmaninov may have been less modern than contemporaries such as Scriabin, Prokofiev, Schoenberg or Debussy, but Rachmaninov's music doesn't have to be considrered from a standpoint of 20th century musical development. It should be treasured for the lush, eloquent, frequently very exciting and often very Russian music that it is.

Geoffrey Norris and Steve Wright