Rachmaninoff at 150: the pianists’ composer
Posted on 16th March 2023 at 12:52
Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Kubey-Rembrandt Studios, Philadephia, Pennsylvania)
This year sees the 150th anniversary of the birth of renowned pianist and composer Rachmaninoff, whose music has divided opinion yet remained popular for many decades. We take a look at his life and work, and ask what has made his compositions – which are renowned for being challenging to play – so successful with audiences around the world.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on 1 April, 1873, to an aristocratic Russian military family. Music was a strong feature of his family life, and Rachmaninoff took up piano at the age of 4, quickly showing a natural talent for the instrument. But when he was still young, the family hit turbulent times after his father’s predilection for gambling led to bankruptcy, and they moved from their home in the village of Semyonovo, in the west of Russia, to Saint Petersburg.
A not-so-model student
Rachmaninoff’s musical studies were able to continue after he was accepted on a scholarship to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory – although the young pianist was far from a model student, apparently playing truant and failing his classes. Luckily for him – and for us – his mother transferred him to the Moscow Conservatory in 1885, where stricter tuition helped to turn things around for Rachmaninoff. Here, he made a real impact, showing an exceptional ability both as a pianist and as a composer.
It was during this time that he composed his Piano Concerto No 1, which was enthusiastically received by audiences and critics alike. And following his graduation in 1892, Rachmaninoff premiered Prelude in C-Sharp Minor with huge success. The piece would go on to have enduring popularity, much to the disgruntlement of the composer himself, who quickly tired of being asked to perform it so many times throughout his career. (The comedian Harpo Marx would later describe how, while staying at the Garden of Allah, his peace was disturbed by Rachmaninoff practising next door. He managed to convince his neighbour to move by playing the opening four bars of Prelude repeatedly for hours at full volume – only later discovering just how much the composer detested the piece!) Prelude is still one of Rachmaninoff’s best-known works today.
His compositions were steeped in the Romantic tradition, although for much of his career he was writing in an era where Romanticism was giving way to Modernism. This sometimes led to his work being dismissed as a throwback to a bygone era, and even today, the overt emotion that is wrought through his music is both a reason for some to reject his works, and one of the major reasons for his overwhelming popularity among the wider public. He was influenced by composers like Tchaikovsky, and by his deep religious faith, with many of his works making use of sounds that evoke the bells and chants heard in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Coming back from disaster
Having made an impressive start to his career, things were very nearly thrown off track after the disastrous premier of Symphony No 1 in 1897. The piece was poorly performed – it was later speculated that the conductor was drunk – and critics panned the work. Rachmaninoff destroyed the score and sank into a deep depression, from which it would take him years to emerge.
But in 1902, his fortunes changed when Piano Concerto No 2 - which he dedicated to Nikolai Dahl, the therapist who had helped him - was unveiled to great success. More than 100 years on, the piece is still an audience favourite, regularly taking the top spot in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame chart, and influencing many other artists’ works.
This breakthrough was followed by a 15-year period that marked Rachmaninoff’s most active as a composer. Notable works produced during this time included Symphony No 2, The Bells, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, and his choral Vespers, formally known as All-night Vigil, which he premiered in 1915 at a concert in aid of Russia’s efforts in the First World War.
Many of Rachmaninoff’s compositions were inspired by other art forms such as poetry, folk song or the visual arts, including his symphonic poem Isle of the Dead, which took inspiration from a black and white reproduction of a painting by Arnold Böcklin. He was quoted as saying:
“A composer’s music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books which have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the product of the sum total of a composer’s experiences. …I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament, and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music.”
It was, therefore, a huge wrench for him when the Russian Revolution of 1917 forced him to flee with his family, first to Scandinavia before settling in the US. While he had found safety, leaving his country of birth left him feeling unable to compose, saying that “losing my country, I lost myself also”. He set about recreating as much of his homeland as he could in his new home in New York, surrounding himself with fellow Russian ex-pats and continuing to observe the customs he had grown up with.
Rachmaninoff experienced periods of depression throughout his life, and it’s notable that most of his major compositions are in minor keys. He was often felt to have a rather stern disposition, with Stravinsky famously calling him a ‘six-and-a-half foot tall scowl’.
Rachmaninoff’s final years – and his popular legacy
While Rachmaninoff made his main living in the US as a much sought-after concert pianist and conductor, he did eventually begin to compose again. During this period he wrote one of his most well-known works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, as well as Symphony No 3 and his last major work, Symphonic Dances. He also recorded a number of pieces with the Philadelphia Orchestra – and he continued performing live even while seriously ill, giving his final performance in February 1943, weeks before his death.
Despite the sometimes sniffy reception to his work, his pieces are far from simple: in fact, they are renowned for being incredibly difficult to perform. This even provided a plot point for the film Shine, which puts a spotlight on the enormous demands of Piano Concerto No 3 - a piece so challenging that, it is said, for many years after he composed it, Rachmaninoff himself was the only pianist who was able to perform it.
It is perhaps the use of his works in popular culture that led to Rachmaninoff being passed over by critics for so long – yet this also helped to bring his compositions to new audiences, for example the use of Piano Concerto No 2 in the classic film Brief Encounter. The concerto also found new life in pop music, with Frank Sinatra, Eric Carmen and David Bowie all borrowing its themes for their melodies. Even Mickey Mouse fans were introduced to Prelude in C-Sharp Minor in a short that gained approval from Rachmaninoff himself!
However his music finds new audiences, it’s clear that Rachmaninoff is still capable of stirring emotions and connecting with listeners around the world today – and it seems likely that he will continue to do so for decades to come.
Classic FM’s take on Rachmaninoff can be found at: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/rachmaninov/
Terry Teachout, writing for Commentary, argues that Rachmaninoff did also embrace Modernism, particularly in his final years: https://www.commentary.org/articles/terry-teachout/what-was-the-matter-with-rachmaninoff/
Tom Service breaks down Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 3 for the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/music/tomserviceblog/2013/nov/19/symphony-guide-rachmaninov-third
The Guardian’s interview with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and filmmaker Tony Palmer delves into critical perceptions of Rachmaninoff’s music, and the history of his some of his compositions: https://www.theguardian.com/friday_review/story/0,3605,296502,00.html
Jeremy Nicholas examines Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments as a composer and pianist for Gramophone: https://www.gramophone.co.uk/features/article/was-rachmaninov-the-most-complete-musician-of-the-past-150-years
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