One of my favorite composers is Sergei Rachmaninoff. Here is a brief bio of the man which explains why as a person I find him so fascinating.
To many Americans in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and Sergei Rachmaninoff was a tall, stern, brilliant figure in classical music. He was a Romantic who staunchly rejected the Modern age even as he lived and breathed in it. He was a composer and piano virtuoso equal to Liszt. His rich, melodious, and sometimes brooding compositions were immediately recognizable. He was the protÃ©gÃ© of Peter Tchaikovsky and son of the storied pre-Soviet Russian school of music. When he lived in America from 1918 to 1943, he seemed to belong to another age, one rich with beautiful music from men like Chopin and Mendelssohn, but one which ended in socialist revolution and the horrific trauma the First World War.
Another side of Rachmaninoff was known by his countrymen, that of the young, sensitive and often luckless artist whose failures were almost as famous as his successes. Born in 1873 into an aristocratic family that had seen better times, Sergei began his studies in St. Petersburg at nine. Soon, he moved to Moscow and began composing.
Despite a brilliant student career and his widely popular Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, Rachmaninoffâ€™s first symphony was an astounding failure. With the arrogance of youth he ignored kindly advice from Rimsky-Korsakov over the score. He didnâ€™t realize how horribly misconceived (or misconducted) his symphony was until the night of its premiere in 1897, which he could not bear to watch. The composer Alexander Glazunov was conducting and had made substantive changes to the score. He was also reputedly drunk at the podium. The audience was dumbfounded, and the critics, including composer Cesar Cui, were merciless. The experience left Rachmaninoff completely humiliated. He would not compose again for three years.
Rachmaninoff sought professional help out of his depression. He consulted psychotherapists and at least once a hypnotist. By 1900 he was riding on a crest of creativity that would last more than a decade.
His Piano Concerto #2, which debuted in 1900, was instantly successful. With Rachmaninoff himself as the soloist, the Russian public quickly realized not only how Russian the work was, but also what a singular artist the composer was. The concerto begins with a theme central to many of Rachmaninoffâ€™s works, the piano emulating the tolling of bells. The melody, dignified yet suggestive of ancient Russian folk chants, was languorous and powerful and filled with long, sweeping melodies. The concertoâ€™s closing moments utilized the power of the piano like few works have done before or since.
From 1900 to when he escaped the Soviet Union in 1917, he would compose thirty-seven of his forty-five opuses including a much more warmly received Symphony #2, and The Isle of the Dead, a tone poem inspired by the haunting painting by Swiss artist Arnold Brocklin. This last work utilized another of Rachmaninoffâ€™s favorite motifs, the Dies Irae chant. His Piano Concerto #3 (1911) was nearly as popular as his second. It was more complex and featured some truly fearsome piano work (and played an important part in the 1996 film Shine). Its cadenza is breathtaking. During this time Rachmaninoff also produced numerous works for solo piano, operas, and choral works, such as the choral symphony The Bells, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. This period was also extremely busy as he conducted and performed throughout Russia and Europe, a practice that would serve him well in later years.
Rachmaninoff worked as much as he could throughout the First World War. While he may have been sympathetic with the plight of the proletariat, he was no friend of the communists. Despite his difficult upbringing, he was an aristocrat at heart and was severely shaken by the October Revolution. As early as June 1917, four months before the Revolution, he was already looking for a way out. By December he had found it: an invitation to play in Stockholm. Without hesitation, he and his family boarded a train for Sweden, never to return.
Late in life, Rachmaninoff once said that â€œa composerâ€™s music should express the country of his birthâ€¦.It should be the sum total of a composerâ€™s experience.â€ He was not shy about his nationalism, which must have made watching Russia descend into totalitarianism all the more heartbreaking. In 1931, he was a signatory to a letter to the New York Times which condemned the Soviet regime as â€œmurderersâ€ and â€œgrave diggers.â€ The Soviets responded by labeling Rachmaninoff as â€œdecadentâ€ and banning his work.
Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoffâ€™s great creative period ended when he left Russia. Living mostly in America, he toured incessantly and became a successful recording artist, but he composed relatively little. He completed his Piano Concerto #4 in 1927, but it was poorly received. His last major works were his Symphony #4 (1937) and his hugely popular Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934). Vivacious and cunning, this work expresses Rachmaninoffâ€™s gift for melody and theme no better than in the exquisite 18th variation, the lyrical beauty of which cannot described. The final variations brilliantly crescendo until the familiar Dies Irae theme reappears ominously in the end, only to be cut short by a quick return to Paganiniâ€™s original caprice, a move as clever as it was comical.
As he grew older, Rachmaninoffâ€™s touring schedule did not let up. Neither did his standards for clarity, precision, and magnificent performances. He continued up until the end, giving his last concert in Knoxville, Tennessee in February of 1943. The concert, which fittingly included Chopinâ€™s Funeral March Sonata, received multiple ovations and rave reviews. Rachmaninoff died of cancer a month later.
Sergei Rachmaninoff stood six feet, six inches tall, which undoubtedly contributed to his forbidding aura. Fellow expatriate composer Igor Stravinsky once referred to him as a â€œsix and half foot scowlâ€¦.an awesome man.â€ His hands were abnormally large, a condition known as â€˜arachnodactylyâ€™. His left hand could play a chord that included C-E flat-G-C-G. His right, C-E-G-C-E. This daunting feat leaves all but the most gifted pianists to play many of his works.
Rachmaninoff was honest, urbane, and sensitive, and his humor was very dry. When asked about his â€˜inspirationâ€™ for the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, he reportedly quipped, â€œ20 rubles. My publisher offered 100 rubles for five short works for piano, and this prelude was one of them.â€ He is also famous for consuming crÃ¨me de menthe before performing his Paganini Rhapsody. The story goes that the he was nervous before playing this piece because of some difficult passages in the 24th variation. A friend suggested a glass of crÃ¨me de menthe to calm his nerves. It worked, and thereafter, Rachmaninoff called his 24th variation the â€œCrÃ¨me de Menthe Variation.â€
He was good friends with fellow piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz and helped relocate novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his family to the United States. He was a great admirer of jazz pianist Art Tatum, as well as a lover of fast automobiles, reputedly buying himself a new vehicle every year and collecting multiple tickets for speeding. He gave generously to the war effort during World War II.
Despite success and fame in America, Sergei Rachmaninoff always longed for home. He was truly a displaced person: a Romantic carrying on the Modern Age, an Old World refugee making a life in America, and a Aristocratic Russian from the time of the Czars turned Cold War exile. In an ironic twist of fate, the Soviets had lifted the ban on his music towards the end of his life, and had sent him a telegram congratulating him on his 70th birthday. Among the signatories was Dmitri Shostakovich, the composer who symbolized the music of the nation Rachmaninoff had left behind. It arrived on March 27th, 1943, the day before Rachmaninoff died. He never was able to read it.