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For many in classical music, Sergei Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873 - March 28, 1943) was one of the last connections, if not the absolute last, between 19th century romanticism and modern times. When in concert as pianist or conductor during the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, his massive presence on stage embodied bygone artistic values and a style of expression missed greatly by the public.
Sergei Vassilievich Rachmaninoff was born to aristocratic parents, in Semyonovo, Russia, just outside the administrative city of Novgorod. Rachmaninoff's parents owned several estates, his maternal grandfather Arkady having served as an army general and cadet school director. Both Rachmaninoff's father Vasily and mother Lubov were amateur pianists; it was Lubov who gave Sergei his earliest lessons. Aware of their son's talent, the Rachmaninoffs hired St. Petersburg musician Anna Ornatskaya, from whom Sergei received personal instruction.
Rachmaninoff was guided by Ornatskaya for three years, before his parents' economic footing collapsed. Vasily was a spendthrift who ran up massive debts and caused their remaining estate, Oneg, to be sold at auction in 1882. Humiliated by losing their property, the Rachmaninoffs moved to St. Petersburg, where Sergei was granted a scholarship by the local conservatory. A diphtheria epidemic soon broke out in the city, killing his sister Sofia; his parents also separated, leaving their three remaining children in Lubov's custody. Not surprisingly, Sergei became an academic disaster by failing all of his general exams in the spring of 1885. Lubov took advice from faculty and moved her twelve-year-old son to the conservatory in Moscow, where he began studies with Nikolai Zverev. It was Zverev's grueling work ethic that helped Rachmaninoff to steady his musical career.
In fact, Rachmaninoff thrived under the new conditions. Besides piano lessons from Zverev and Alexander Ziloti (his cousin, a former pupil of Franz Liszt), Rachmaninoff studied theory under such men as Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev. Zverev's home was also frequented by Tchaikovsky and amongst Rachmaninoff's classmates was Alexander Scriabin. Rachmaninoff became a valued student, completing his piano studies one year early in 1891. To finish his composition course with Arensky in a single year, he wrote the one-act opera Aleko (based on Pushkin's The Gypsies), which premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1893 and remains a staple of the operatic repertoire. Rachmaninoff accepted the Moscow Conservatory's Great Gold Medal, only the third person to receive that honor He also patched his relationship with Zverev, which had fallen apart after deciding to become a composer and asking for private space in Zverev's home. Rachmaninoff's conservatory works entered the repertoire almost immediately; besides Aleko, works such as his Piano Concerto No. 1 and Prelude in C-Sharp minor for solo piano have become revered.
Rachmaninoff was an active composer until March 1897, when his Symphony No. 1 received its disastrous premiere under Alexander Glazunov. The symphony was trashed by critics, including César Cui, although much is owed to the clumsiness of Glazunov's interpretation, his mediocre conducting skills, and suspected drunkenness while on the podium. Symphony No. 1's premiere haunted Rachmaninoff and the composition was not heard again until after his death. The fiasco plunged Rachmaninoff into a depression that left him unable to compose large-scale works for three years. He worked mainly as a concert pianist, conductor, and teacher before undergoing hypnotic treatment with psychologist Nicolai Dahl. Rachmaninoff steadily recovered and began work on his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1900, arguably the most beloved concerto in western music.
Rachmaninoff enjoyed artistic and financial success over a ten-year period, before his countrymen revolted against the tsarist government and their worsening position in the First World War. In 1902, he married cousin Natalia Satin through arrangement with priests of the Russian army, to whom his grandfather was connected. He served as conductor of the Bolshoi Theater from 1904-6, afterwards devoting time to composition in Italy and Germany. Rachmaninoff's first performance tour of the United States came in 1909, for which he specifically wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3. Other works during this time included the Fifteen Songs (1906) for voice and piano, Symphony No. 2 (1908), and Piano Sonata No. 1 (1908).
In December 1917, the Leninist regime seized Ivanovka, Rachmaninoff's estate near Tambov. He moved with his wife and two daughters to Denmark before relocating to New York the following year. Rachmaninoff, however, did not openly criticize Soviet government until a March 1931 letter to the New York Times, after which his music was banned from performance halls and conservatories throughout the USSR. His composing output declined upon arrival in the United States, but Rachmaninoff quickly established himself as one of the twentieth century's great virtuosi through concerts, recitals, and recordings. He toured continuously until his death and made numerous albums (especially with RCA Victor) as pianist and conductor that are still heard today.
While living as an exile in the United States, six foot-six inch Rachmaninoff had the outlook of someone who didn't fit. The word "anachronism" has been used to describe this stern, reticent man whose hands could strike a thirteenth on the keyboard. His attitudes and mindset were certainly aristocratic, derived from the very setting in which he was raised but had since gone out of fashion. He was often described by friends as glum after experiencing his family's bankruptcy, the early death of two sisters, and the sudden eclipse of Russian aristocratic tradition. As his health declined in the late 1930s, Rachmaninoff's sadness grew worse, aware that a return to his homeland was becoming impossible. Rachmaninoff's music exudes the feelings of a man unwillingly divorced from his past; much of it harkens back to an era that Rachmaninoff saw quickly disappear and would never see again before his death on March 28, 1943.
Alive during the spawn of twelve-tone music, neoclassicism, and various forms of avant-gardism, Rachmaninoff was modern art's complete antithesis. His compositions and pianism are entrenched in the romantic style of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, and Antonín Dvořák. Rachmaninoff had little or no use for contemporary musical trends, preferring to compose and perform in styles he held dearly since birth. His compositions make regular use of chant, hymn, and folk song while his pianism takes brilliance in stride and thoroughly lacks self-consciousness. As a result, views of Rachmaninoff were split into two extremes during his lifetime; anti-romantics such as Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg frowned upon his work, while he was embraced by such names as Gustav Mahler, Eugene Ormandy, and Dimitri Mitropoulos Even today, listeners can be overwhelmed by the vast, enveloping sound that Rachmaninoff's music generates and performers are hesitant to supply the emotions his works demand.
Rachmaninoff's compositions are limited in number, but their lush sonorities and grandeur have made them standards of classical music. There are some forty-five opus numbers, including symphonies, piano concerti, orchestral tone poems, operas, chamber works, solo piano collections, transcriptions, and choral pieces. Rachmaninoff wrote four piano concerti, of which No. 2 (in C minor) and No. 3 (in D minor) are played constantly and world-renowned. Also famous is his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) for piano and orchestra, three symphonies, and his tone poem Isle of the Dead (1909), based on a symbolist painting by Arnold Böcklin. Rachmaninoff had a vicarious relationship with the Orthodox Church, but used his talent for two major religious works, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the All-Night Vigil (1915). Amongst his solo piano writings are two sonatas, the Études-Tableaux, and two sets of preludes. Rachmaninoff's later operas include The Miserly Knight (1904) and Francesca da Rimini (1905), which have minor places on his résumé.
Time has been an enemy to composers, but not in the case of Rachmaninoff. While such works as his three symphonies and Isle of the Dead are not performed with due regularity, his concerti and solo works are lauded achievements. They are of great physical and intellectual skill, playable by only the most accomplished and dedicated technicians. In academic circles, Rachmaninoff has yet to lose the stigma of a "throwback" composer who embraced romanticism far beyond its shelf life; condemnation of his music is still found amongst theorists and well-known critics. But common listeners usually judge music on the sound itself rather than its historical placement and Rachmaninoff's audiences have substantially widened.
Regardless of his value as a composer, Rachmaninoff's legacy as a pianist and recording artist will never fade. Amidst many talented musicians who have come and gone in the twentieth century, Rachmaninoff stands as a giant who combined dazzling virtuosity with stunning efficiency and ease. His recordings shed light on an era of pianists who had mostly died out before the arrival of gramophone-making, leaving their performances in a vast, silent library of myth. Rachmaninoff held a role similar to Ignace Paderewski, Artur Rubinstein, Francis Planté, and Alfred Cortot in preserving what little of this epoch remained. And in our modern times, Rachmaninoff has been a continual inspiration to pianists who believe in romanticism as an undying sentiment. ~ Paul-John Ramos