Sergei Rachmaninoff was born into an aristocratic family in Oneg, Russia on April 2, 1873. He was one of 6 children. Sergei began taking piano lessons at age 4 and because of his huge talent, a piano teacher was hired to live with the family to begin his formal training. At age 10 the family moved to St. Petersburg and he began studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. That year one of Sergei’s sisters died of diptheria and his father left the family. Sergei’s maternal grandmother helped raise the children. She frequently brought him to Russian Orthodox Church services, where he heard liturgical chants and church bells, both of which he later incorporated into his music. 2 years later, Sergei’s older sister died at the age of 18 from anemia. It was she who had introduced Sergei to Tchaikovsky’s music, which he loved. As a result of her death, the boy slacked off and failed his exams that year. His mother therefore transferred him to the Moscow Conservatory. He lived with 2 other students at the home of his new teacher, Nikolai Zverev. The training was strict; piano practicing began at 6 o’clock each morning. During this period that he became friends with the composer Alexander Scriabin. After 4 years Sergei moved in with an aunt and uncle, and spent summers at their country estate, Ivanovka, which he later owned. As a student he composed several works at Ivanovka, including his 1st Piano Concerto in 1891.
After graduating from the conservatory, Rachmaninoff composed one of his most popular compositions: the Prelude in C# minor. He played it at his professional debut in 1892 and later lamented that he was repeatedly asked to play it as an encore everywhere he performed.
That same year Rachmaninoff wrote his 1st opera in 17 days: Aleko based on Pushkin’s poem, The Gypsies. It was given its 1st performance at the Bolshoi Theatre, and was praised by Tchaikovsky, who went to the rehearsals and the performance. In fact, Tchaikovsky planned to conduct Rachmaninoff’s tone poem, The Rock on a European tour. Before that could happen, Tchaikovsky suddenly died, and when Rachmaninoff found out, he expressed his grief by beginning to compose the Trio Elegiaque No. 2 for piano, violin and cello, as a tribute to Tchaikovsky.
Rachmaninoff became very depressed after the deaths of his grandmother and Tchaikovsky. During this period he did some performing and gave piano lessons. In 1895, Rachmaninoff composed his 1st Symphony, which was given its world premiere 2 years later. He blamed the conductor, Alexander Glazunov for the negative reaction to the symphony, claiming that Glazunov conducted it while drunk. The composer Cesar Cui compared it to a depiction of the 10 plagues of Egypt, and wrote that it would be admired by inmates of a conservatory in hell. It was not performed again during R’s lifetime. As a result of the critical failure of his 1st Symphony, Rachmaninoff fell into a depression for more than 3 years. He continued giving piano lessons but hardly did any composing.
He was then engaged as a conductor at the Private Russian Opera Co. where he formed a life-long friendship with the bass Feodor Chaliapin, who was singing there. During this period of depression he composed the song Fate, which is only one of almost 100 songs he composed.
Rachmaninoff was very sensitive and highly strung. In an attempt to alleviate the depression, his aunt arranged for Rachmaninoff to visit the writer, Leo Tolstoy, who was a living legend and greatly admired by Rachmaninoff. However the visit did nothing to encourage the young composer.
He became very self-critical and was suffering from writer’s block. His aunt then suggested he receive treatment from Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who administered daily hypnosis and psychotherapy sessions for several months. It worked! And he began to compose his 2nd Piano Concerto, which he completed in 1901, and dedicated it to Dr. Dahl.
In 1902 Rachmaninoff married one of his 1st cousins, Natalia Satina. They had 2 daughters, Irina and Tatiana. During those years R taught music at St. Catherine’s Women’s College and at The Elizabeth Institute.
In 1904 he became conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre. He was strict as a conductor, insisting on high artistic standards. Like Wagner in Germany and Verdi in Italy, Rachmaninoff implemented the design of an orchestra pit, thus ensuring that the instrumentalists would not be visible and therefore not be distracting to the audience. It also allowed for a better balance between the singers and the orchestra because up until the end of the 19th century there were no orchestra pits. Orchestras used to be placed on the ground floor between the front row and the stage, resulting in the players often drowning out the singers. He also stood on his feet to conduct, another innovation of the time.
His 2nd and 3rd operas, The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini had their world premieres at the Bolshoi with Rachmaninoff conducting. Both operas received great acclaim. Apparently he was an excellent conductor. In his memoirs, the composer, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote: “In the early days of autumn I attended the premiere of my opera Pan Voyevoda, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The conductor was Sergei Rachmaninoff, a musician of rare talent. With the exception of two of the singers who lacked in vocal power, the performance was superb. The orchestra and chorus performed with great excellence.”
After conducting 89 performances at the Bolshoi during his 2 years there, Rachmaninoff quit his position, due to the social and political tensions of the 1905 Revolution. He and his family moved to Dresden, Germany for a few years where his freed up schedule allowed him to compose. He was inspired by a black and white print photograph of Arnold Böcklin’s painting The Isle of the Dead, which he viewed in an art gallery in Leipzig. After seeing this print, Rachmaninoff composed his orchestral tone poem The Isle of the Dead. Years later when he saw one of Böcklin’s 5 color versions of the painting, he stated, that had he seen the color versions 1st, he would not have composed this music.
Although he still experienced periods of depression, apathy, and a lack of confidence in his compositions, Rachmaninoff began composing his 2nd Symphony while in Dresden, and completed it as he returned to Russia. Its world premiere in 1908 was a great success.
In 1909 Rachmaninoff made his U.S. debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Max Fiedler, the father of Arthur Fiedler. He performed as conductor and as pianist at Smith College, and in Cambridge, Boston, NY, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago. Rachmaninoff composed his 3rd piano concerto especially for this 1st American tour. He played the world premiere with the NY Symphony conducted by Walter Damrosch and again 7 weeks later with the NY Philharmonic conducted by Gustav Mahler. Not wanting to leave Russia, Rachmaninoff turned down an offer to become the conductor of the Boston Symphony.
In 1910 he became the vice president of the Imperial Russian Musical Society. And he resigned in protest when a musician was dismissed for being Jewish. In 1912 he completed his choral symphony, The Bells, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Bells.
During WW I Rachmaninoff gave concerts for wounded soldiers and for the relief of hungry, homeless refugees. In a 2 week period he composed his All Night Vigil for a chorus of boys and men. Performances of it to aid victims of the war was very enthusiastically received. Rachmaninoff stated that he wanted the section, Now let thy servant depart, to be heard at his funeral.
That year his teacher Sergei Taneyev died and even more impactful to Rachmaninoff was the death of his friend, the composer Alexander Scriabin, at age 43 from blood poisoning. Rachmaninoff immediately began a concert tour playing S’s music to raise money for the composer’s widow. It was after these two deaths that Rachmaninoff composed his Vocalise for soprano and orchestra. He composed another version for orchestra only, which he conducted in a recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
As the Revolution of 1917 raged on, Rachmaninoff’s country home Ivanovka was seized by members of the Social Revolution Party and soon after was confiscated by communist authorities. The old order based on the absolute rule of the all-powerful Czar broke down along with that of the Russian aristocracy, which was being run over by the peasants who demanded bread and power. At the end of 1917 Rachmaninoff left Russia with his family, taking with them whatever they could pack into their small suitcases. They went first to Finland, then Sweden, and finally settled in Copenhagen, Denmark. Rachmaninoff was 44 and broke. He decided to concertize full time. This meant he had to buckle down studying and practicing to learn much of the solo piano repertoire for the first time! Rachmaninoff had an amazing memory. He could hear any piece of music and play it from memory the next day, the next year, or ten years later.
Rachmaninoff was offered the conductorship of the Cincinnati Symphony, and received an offer to conduct 119 concerts with the Boston Symphony, and another offer to give 25 piano recitals in the U.S. He turned down these offers, but finally decided to move to America because he realized that the U.S. was more financially advantageous. He was warmly welcomed upon arrival and immediately began performing solo piano recitals throughout the U.S. and purchased an apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan.
In 1919 Rachmaninoff made some recordings for Thomas Edison, who was rather deaf and didn’t like classical music. So the following year he signed a contract with the company that became RCA records for which he made many recordings. He also recorded many piano rolls, which have been reproduced and recorded in stereo on today’s pianos, notably the Bosesendorfer piano. How wonderful it is that we can hear just how Rachmaninoff actually played!
In 1924 Rachmaninoff established a music publishing company specializing in compositions by himself and those of other Russian composers.
Beginning in 1928 he became close friends with the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. When Horowitz sunk into one of his bouts of paralyzing depression, it was Rachmaninoff who comforted him. And about Horowitz’s playing of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto, the composer said: “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”
In 1930 Rachmaninoff built a summer home in Switzerland at Lake Lucerne. He loved to drive his boat on the lake. He named the home Senar. The s & e are the 1st 2 letter s of Rachmaninoff’s first name, Sergei. The N & A are the 1st 2 letters of his wife’s name, Natalia, and the R stands for Rachmaninoff. He also utilized the rhythm of his last name, Rachmaninoff, as an ending to many of his compositions: “Rachmaninoff”. It was at Senar that he composed his 3rd Symphony and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Rachmaninoff’s final concert in Europe was at the Lucerne International Music Festival in 1939. He then returned to the U.S. and performed many concerts to benefit the Red Army in support of Russia’s role in the war against Nazi Germany. His last composition, Symphonic Dances was composed in 1940.
As he aged Rachmaninoff suffered from arthritis, sclerosis, high blood pressure, headaches, pain in his lower back, nerve pain, and extreme fatigue, so the Rachmaninoff’s moved to Beverly Hills, CA to be in a better climate.
He decided that he’d make one last concert tour during the 1942-43 season in order to then be able to devote himself full time to composing. He became too ill to complete the tour and his last performance was at the Univ. of Tennessee in Knoxville. He returned to CA, was immediately hospitalized and was diagnosed with an advanced form of skin cancer. He died a month later in his home just 4 days before his 70th birthday. He was buried in Valhalla, NY.
A statue marked: Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert was erected in Knoxville. A music conservatory in Paris bears his name, as do streets in Veliky Novgorod and Tambov, Russia. The Moscow Conservatory of Music named an auditorium after him, monuments to Rachmaninoff stand in Moscow and Veliky Novgorod, near his birthplace. And the Russian Federation issued a commemorative Rachmaninoff coin.
The legendary pianist, Arthur Rubinstein wrote: “He had the secret of the golden, living tone which comes from the heart…I was always under the spell of his glorious and inimitable tone…There was always the irresistible sensuous charm.”