Russian composer, conductor, and pianist. After the 1917 Revolution he emigrated to the USA. His music is melodious and emotional and includes operas, such as Francesca da Rimini (1906), three symphonies, four piano concertos, piano pieces, and songs. Among his other works are the Prelude in C-Sharp Minor (1892) and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) for piano and orchestra.
Rachmaninov was the son of a captain in the Imperial Guards and the descendant of a wealthy and noble family. The family fortune was gravely impaired during his childhood and his parents separated in 1882, Rachmaninov living with his mother in St Petersburg. There he took music lessons at the Conservatory in a desultory way until Alexander Siloti, who was his cousin, advised his mother to send him to Moscow to study under Nikolai Sverev. He went to the Moscow Conservatory and lived in Sverev's house for four years; later he went to live with his aunt, whose daughter, Natalia Satin, he later married. He wrote the one-act opera Aleko while still a student, and the piano pieces Op. 3, containing the popular C♯ minor prelude, at the age of 19. In 1895 he wrote his first symphony and in 1898 was invited by the Philharmonic Society in London to appear as a pianist and to conduct his orchestral fantasy The Rock. In 1905–06 he became conductor of the Imperial Grand Opera at Moscow and in 1909 visited the USA for the first time, writing the third piano concerto for the occasion and playing it himself. He had by this time become one of the finest pianists of the time and he remained pre-eminent in that respect throughout his life.
He lived in Moscow again 1910–17 and conducted the Philharmonic concerts there 1911–13. During World War I he played much for charity, and at the death of Aleksandr Skriabin, who had been his fellow-pupil under Anton Arensky, he decided to make a tour playing that composer's works only. From that time on he became a much-travelled pianist, and finding himself out of sympathy with the Revolution in Russia, he took the opportunity of a concert journey to Scandinavia in 1917 to leave his country forever. He lived in Paris for a time and then spent most of the rest of his life in the USA, touring there each year from January to April and visiting Europe as pianist in October and November, spending some of the summer months at a small property he had acquired on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.
Rachmaninov's reputation with the public has always been secure, although his frequently dark and emotional music has had some harsh words from the critics: the exceptionally tall Rachmaninov was summed up by the diminutive Stravinsky as ‘six and-a-half feet of sheer misery’.
WorksStage opera Aleko (1893), The Miserly Knight (1906), Francesca da Rimini (1906), and Monna Vanna (1907; performed Philadelphia, 1985).
Choral choral symphony The Bells (Poe) for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra (1913); cantata The Spring; Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1910), and Vesper Mass; three Russian folk songs and chorus.
Orchestral piano concertos (1890–1926) and Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra (1934); three symphonies (1895, 1907, 1936), fantasy The Rock, Caprice Bohémien, and symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (after Böcklin's picture) for orchestra (1909); Symphonic Dances (1940).
Chamber and solo musicElegiac Trio for violin, cello, and piano (1893), string quintet and piano trio (unpub); cello and piano sonata, two pieces for violin and piano, and two for cello and piano; a dozen works for piano solo, including two sonatas, variations on themes by Chopin (1903) and Corelli (1931), and 57 smaller pieces (preludes, Etudes-Tableaux, and others); four works for two pianos; 77 songs.
Rachmaninov, Sergei Vasilevich
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