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About the Russian Composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Works and Life

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Overview

  • Born: 1873 - Symyonouo, Russia
  • Died: 1943 - USA
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, songs, choral 

Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 in Russia and was one of the greatest Russian composers of all time. Considered by many to be the final figure of Russian Romanticism, he was both a performer and a composer. His artistry extended from the 19th century into the 20th century and he is fondly remembered for pieces like his piano concerti and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninoff passed away in 1943 in the United States of America. 

Sergei Rachmaninoff: The Vanguard of The Late-Romantic Era

Born on his grandparents’ estate, Rachmaninoff had aristocratic roots and his father was an ex-army officer. Rachmaninoff's prodigious talents in music, particularly on the piano, became obvious early on and garnered him tremendous respect throughout his life. His cousin, Aleksandr Siloti, was a famous musician himself and, judging the young Sergei’s abilities, made the suggestion of sending the latter for piano studies under Nikolai Zverev, a revered pianist in Moscow. 

Growing up as a student under extreme discipline and the guidance of his teacher, Rachmaninoff composed Aleko (1892), a one-act opera, for which he got a gold medal. One of his best works from this period is a collection of piano pieces named Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3 (1892), which includes the well-known Prelude in C-sharp minor

The tremendous failure of his Symphony No. 1 in D Minor (1895), caused a period of severe depression for Rachmaninoff when his critics ripped it apart.  This was further amplified due to an unsuccessful love affair for which he went to a psychiatrist, Nikolai Dahl, who is widely accepted to be the one who brought the composer out of his troubled state. This led to the composition of Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900), which was written in Dahl’s honor.   

Rachmaninoff eventually married his sweetheart Natalia in 1902, wedded by an army priest. His consecutive successes as a conductor helped him get worthy offers, such as that of a conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904, which he had to leave after two years due to political reasons. He took up residence in Dresden, Germany in 1906, while awaiting a stable situation back home. In the meantime, Rachmaninoff wrote Symphony No. 2 in E Minor (1907), Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (1909) and The Isle of the Dead (1909).

Piano Concerto No. 3 produced exclusively for his tour in the United States of America, is a testament to the virtuosic talents of Rachmaninoff, with a brilliant bravura section in its final movement. He was even offered the position of the Boston Symphony’s permanent conductor, but he didn’t accept it. 

One of Rachmaninoff’s well-known pieces composed in Moscow is The Bells (1913), which is inspired by Konstantin Balmont’s version of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The work is notable for its ingenious coupling of choral and orchestral resources producing incredible effects. 

The Russian Revolution in 1917, prompted Rachmaninoff to leave his country in order to live in Switzerland and America. An important work of his during this time was Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (1936), which was characteristically dark and solemn. 

Of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, the No. 3 is reputably the most difficult concerto of his authorship. But it is also the one that is highly favored by several world-class pianists. However, the maestro’s contributions to piano far exceed this with his Ten Preludes, Op. 23 (1901-1903), Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32 (1910), and the older Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2 from Morceaux de Fantaisie Op. 3 (1892), which utilizes all the major and minor keys. Études-Tableaux Op. 33 (1911), Moments Musicaux, Op. 16 (1896) and Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22 (1902-1903) are some notable examples of his works. 

His distinct technique follows the Romantic style, inspired by the likes of Tchaikovsky or Mussorgsky, but considerable influences of Chopin and Liszt are evident too. Some other examples of his work are:

  • All-Night Vigil (1915)
  • Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910)

Five others should be mentioned. Trio Élégiaque (1892), is a piano trio dedicated to Tchaikovsky, while his Cello Sonata (1902) displays the impeccable artistic capabilities of Rachmaninoff on the piano. Rachmaninoff's operatic contributions include The Miserly Knight (1904) along with Francesca da Rimini (1905), but these aren’t as famous as some of his top-notch work. Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934), consists of variations based on a piece by Niccolò Paganini. The composer’s final piece, Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, (1940), was written just a couple of years before his death. 

The brilliance of Sergei Rachmaninoff can be better stated with the fact that his harmonic language is considered to have expanded beyond Tchaikovsky himself, owing to a virtuosic level of mastery. His use of bell sounds is evident in many of his pieces, such as in the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18. Rachmaninoff’s love for Russian Orthodox chants is clear in his All-Night Vigil or Vespers, and his grasp of counterpoint and fugal writing is beyond doubt. The sonorous grandeur of his musical pieces has made them a classical musical standard. 

Rachmaninoff recorded for Edison Records as they were known to produce the best audio quality in piano recording at the time. The company went on to produce multiple alternative versions of Rachmaninoff's works, most probably due to carelessness or ease of production. Nevertheless, this move angered Rachmaninoff so much that he cut all ties with Edison, and started recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and eventually, RCA Victor. This company agreed to Rachmaninoff's restrictions, highlighting him as one of the premier artists recording for them. 

It is undeniable that Rachmaninoff was a stalwart of his musical generation and a genius of the late-Romantic era. With his unmatched technical facilities and rhythm, his body of work is among the best ever composed and has remained some of the most practiced to this day. After his demise in 1943, he was laid to rest in Kensico Cemetery, New York.


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