In today’s video, we’ll be talking about the history of Rachmaninoff. I had to learn how to pronounce his name for this video!
We’ll talk about his life, music and personality. Let’s jump right in!
History of Rachmaninoff: Basics
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 in Russia, in the late Romantic period of Classical music. He was a virtuoso pianist, doing plenty of conducting and touring in his lifetime (which lasted 70 years).
He drew influence from other great Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky, and his piano and orchestral compositions are considered very expressive and melodic.
Rachmaninoff was born into a wealthy and musical family with five siblings. He started taking piano lessons at the age of four, and like pretty much all other composers, showed a huge amount of talent at a very young age.
According to his mom, he could play musical passages from memory without wrong notes. Since he showed talent, a music teacher was sent to their estate.
Though Rachmaninoff was born into money, his father had a tendency to squander it (via gambling and other irresponsible activities), so at the age of 10, their family moved to a small place in St. Petersburg. Rachmaninoff started studying music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory at this time.
Also at this time, his father took off for good. His grandmother ended up raising the children. Since she was of Orthodox faith, they often went to church, and Rachmaninoff would later incorporate aspects of church music into his songwriting.
By the time Rachmaninoff was 12, two of his sisters had died. One was an older sister who had introduced him to the music of Tchaikovsky.
Early teen Rachmaninoff started slacking off in school and was about to flunk out, but his mom ended up arranging a transfer for him to be sent to the Moscow Conservatory instead in the year 1885.
During his time in Moscow, Rachmaninoff befriended Scriabin, another well-known composer. He started doing better in school and was awarded a scholarship, though one of his teachers was strongly against him getting into composing – apparently composing wasn’t for “serious musicians”. But Rachmaninoff, little rebel that he was, composed anyway.
In 1892, during Rachmaninoff’s last year of school, he began his performing and composing career in earnest, earning praise from Tchaikovsky himself for an opera called Aleko.
Rachmaninoff wasn’t expecting it to go well at all – a sign of self-doubt that would persist through his life – and was surprised with its massive success. It earned the highest mark for a final composition at the Conservatory.
His public debut as a pianist happened in 1892 when he was 19 years old, performing the piece Prelude in C sharp minor, one of his more well-known piano compositions.
When Tchaikovsky died of cholera in 1893, Rachmaninoff was devastated. He wrote Trio elegiaque no. 2 for piano, violin and cello as a tribute, and fell into a depression afterward. He was teaching piano and went on a tour that made him miserable, and not earning very much money.
Symphony no. 1
He completed his first symphony, and it debuted in 1897, and it flopped. One music critic said that it would be admired by “’inmates”’ of a music conservatory in Hell.”
The symphony didn’t perform well either, in part because the conductor was drunk. Rachmaninoff said that he wasn’t so much upset at the outward criticism, but he was “deeply distressed and heavily depressed by the fact that my Symphony … did not please me at all after its first rehearsal.”
The symphony was not performed again in his lifetime. This event sent him into a creative and depressive funk for years.
History of Rachmaninoff: Depression
Eventually he got into conducting, which helped to get him out of his funk. But overarching depression kept his compositions to a minimum. His aunt even arranged a meeting between Rachmaninoff and writer Leo Tolstoy, whom Rachmaninoff admired, but the meeting apparently did nothing for his productivity.
By 1900, his family suggested that it might be time for Rachmaninoff to get professional help for his depression, and he agreed. His psychotherapist was Nikolai Dahl, and they made great progress in a short amount of time.
Rachmaninoff was re-inspired, and completed his very famous Piano Concerto no. 2 in 1901, which he dedicated to Dahl. This concerto won him the Glinka award and a cash prize, and was well-received.
Marriage and travel
Rachmaninoff married his first cousin, Natalia Satina, in 1902, at age 29. The happy couple had two daughters in Moscow, and he continued his life as a music teacher and conductor. As a conductor he was very strict, and worked with soloists individually to perfect performances.
He went gallivanting around Italy with his family after growing tired of conducting (and the effects current politics had on his post).
When he returned, jobless, his only real option for money at that time was composition. But due to politics in Russia and having a big social life, Rachmaninoff couldn’t find the time to compose, so the family moved to Dresden, Germany between 1906-1909.
This was a good, inspired period of his life (despite bouts of depression), and he steeled himself up to finally write his second symphony. This symphony premiered in 1908 and won him another award and cash prize – a huge departure from the first symphony’s disappointing debut.
Around this time he also went on tour in the United States, performing his third Piano Concerto with Gustav Mahler, a famous musician at the time, as conductor – an experience that thrilled Rachmaninoff. This grew his popularity in the States, but he didn’t stay for continued touring because he missed his family.
His family moved back to Russia, but Rachmaninoff continued to tour and travel, hitting up Switzerland, Rome and England.
World War 1
In 1914, World War 1 began. Rachmaninoff wasn’t enlisted because he was technically a government servant as a music director at a school, but he donated money to the war effort.
His old school friend Scriabin died in 1915, and Rachmaninoff went on a tour featuring Scriabin’s work to help his widow out financially.
By 1917, the communist authorities seized Rachmaninoff’s estate and the family began to travel. In Moscow, Rachmaninoff was revising his first Piano Concerto while gunshots were going on outside. He received an offer to go on a Scandinavian musical tour, and he jumped on the opportunity to get himself and his family out of the country, bringing only what they could fit in a few suitcases.
Since he had abandoned his estate and virtually all his personal belongings, Rachmaninoff was pretty broke at this point. Luckily he had friends to help him out, and he had enough “cred” to make ends meet as a performer.
Performing had never really been his primary gig (conducting, teaching and playing the odd piano composition were more up his alley), so this decision meant he had to expand his piano repertoire and practice more.
Eventually he was given offers to conduct in the United States, which he initially rejected since he didn’t have warm feelings toward the USA, and he didn’t want to live somewhere so far away and strange. But it was financially advantageous for him to do so, so the family packed up and moved to New York City in 1918.
Rachmaninoff was basically a pop star at this point – when people found out what hotel he was staying at, a crowd swarmed the place.
Over the next several years he toured the States and visited California for rest and recuperation between bouts of travel. The family was doing well, earning enough for personal chefs and servants. He purchased a villa in Switzerland for his family.
They maintained their Russian identity, though, decorating their new place in the style of their place back in Russia. He had Russian friends and contacts, and all his correspondences were translated into Russian. He enjoyed good suits and fancy new cars.
He didn’t hoard all that money, though – he had money and food consistently donated back to Russia for people in need.
He became friends with legendary Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz. When Horowitz performed Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3, Rachmaninoff remarked, “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”
Between the time of his arrival in New York in 1918 and his death in 1942, Rachmaninoff only composed six new works. About this slow output, Rachmaninoff said, “I left behind my desire to compose: losing my country, I lost myself also”.
World War II and cancer
One of Rachmaninoff’s daughters lived in Paris, and the last time the family foursome was all together was in 1939, before Rachmaninoff fled the war-torn country. He donated some of his concert money to support Russia in its efforts against Nazi Germany throughout the war.
When Rachmaninoff returned to America in 1939, he started a series of recordings, including his first and third piano concertos. By 1942, though, his health began to suffer and his doctor recommended he relocate to a warmer climate – so Rachmaninoff relocated to California, in Beverly Hills, close to Horowitz.
Rachmaninoff also bonded with Stravinsky, since they were both from Russia and had children in Paris during the war.
Despite experiencing severe lower back pain and fatigue, Rachmaninoff continued to perform and tour, but had to cut a final tour short because of ill health, at which point he was diagnosed with melanoma (skin cancer). He performed a final recital in early 1943, which included a performance of Chopin’s second Piano Sonata, of which there’s a funeral march movement.
He succumbed to cancer on March 28, just four days before his seventieth birthday. Rachmaninoff had wanted to be buried in Moscow alongside Scriabin and other peers, but since he was a naturalized American citizen, that didn’t work out. In 2015, Russia decided they wanted Rachmaninoff’s remains returned to the mother country, but so far that hasn’t happened – and it’s unlikely.
History of Rachmaninoff: The pianist
Rachmaninoff was known for being one of the most gifted pianists ever, who played with remarkable precision and clarity. His playing was never over-pedalled or blurry.
Part of this might have to do with the fact that he had gigantic hands – which makes some of his compositions especially challenging to play for those with a more normal hand size. He could reach the span of a 12th with his left hand, while most regular mortals can only reach an 8th or 9th.
As someone with plenty of operatic experience, Rachmaninoff’s playing and writing style was always, first and foremost, melodic. Artur Rubinstein had this to say about his playing,
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 which could make me forget my uneasiness about his too rapidly fleeting fingers and his exaggerated rubatos.”
Some of his recordings can be found online if you’d like to hear him play, including a performance of Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody.
Rachmaninoff’s physique and personality
In addition to having huge hands, Rachmaninoff was also particularly tall, somewhere around 6’1” to 6’3”.
An aspect of his music that also likely reflects his personality is its detached nature. His music observes the ups and downs of life, instead of being messy and in the thick of the drama. He’s the observer, not the participant.
He was a serious man, not known to laugh, but he was wry and witty. He’d be the kind of person to get his friends in stitches without hardly cracking a smile himself. Igor Stravinsky described him as a “six-and-a-half foot scowl”.
Despite his stoic and serious nature, close friends knew him to be kind and generous as well.
He had a similar manner while performing – completely stone-faced, but his hands were energetic and expressive.
Pianist Eugene Istomin, a student of Rachmaninoff’s as a child, described,
“He looked like a convict. He was so big, so large, that the keyboard looked like a little checkerboard in front of him. I wasn’t frightened at how he looked, but I was impressed.”
Music critic Harold Schonberg said about Rachmaninoff,
“He was the perfect pianist, san pareil, san raproche. He was absolutely perfect, flawless, an aristocrat with a high sense of drama and an extraordinary sense of poetry. And he could convey this extraordinary charisma with so little effort. But this golden sound came out of those perfectly programmed fingers. I don’t think I ever heard him make a mistake.”
On the difficulty of Rachmaninoff’s music, pianist Ruth Laredo said,
“I must say that preparing to play anything by Rachmaninoff demands more sheer work than any other composer I’ve ever played. By comparison, I’d say that Tchaikovsky, Brahms, or even Chopin are much more comfortable. Rachmaninoff is always asking you for more. You have to keep at it every single day. You never let go. You can never expect that it’s going to be all right next time. The music does not stay in your hand. You can’t let it go and then pick it up again and have it there. It isn’t there anymore. I don’t know why.”
I hope you enjoyed this brief history of Rachmaninoff. In the coming months we’ll explore this composer in depth. If you’d like to delve deeper, this is a great read on Rachmaninoff.