Composer Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was born on the 1st April 1872 in Semyonovo in Russia. He composed in the late Romantic period. Alongside composing, he was a conductor and exceptional pianist. His compositions often reflected his love of this instrument.
He was born into a family of Russian nobility, who owned several estates. He and his 5 siblings, were surrounded by music and musicianship from birth and he himself, started learning piano at the tender age of 4 years old. He had a great ability to play large sections of music form memory.
His father was a former army officer, so Rachmaninoff was always destined for a career in the army too. However, 1882 was a harsh year for the Rachmaninoff family. They were forced to auction off their estate in Onega due to their severe financial situation, so they went from having 5 estates, to just 1. A year later, they moved to St Petersburg and lived in a small flat. Rachmaninoff was now 10 and it was arranged for him to go to the St Petersburg Conservatory to further his study of music. Tragedy struck this year when Sofia, his sister, died of diphtheria and his father abandoned the family and fled to Moscow.
Now being raised with the help of his grandmother, she was very keen that the family should follow a spiritual life and she took him to the local Russian Orthodox Church to take part in services. It was here that he first experienced church bells and chants, that inspired him to put these into his own compositions in later life.
1885 saw further tragedy for the family, when another sister, Yelena, died at only 18 years old. She had been influential to Rachmaninoff, introducing him to Tchaikovsky’s music. He was still studying at the Conservatory at this time, but he let his studies slip and started to fail his classes. With the threat of being asked to leave, his mother decided that he should be transferred to the Moscow Conservatory instead.
When Sergei Rachmaninoff was 15 years old, he was awarded the Rubinstein scholarship. He bucked his ideas up and in July 1891, passed all his exams with honours and also his annual composition exams and his music theory exam. It was in February 1892, while he was in his final year at the Conservatory, that he premiered his piece Trio élégiaque No. 1, whilst performing his first independent concert. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory on the 29th May 1892, with a diploma. By this time, he had already composed many orchestral pieces and pieces for the piano. It was also in this year that he made his debut in public as a pianist, attending a performance at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition. He also found his first love around this time; a young lady called Vera. However, her mother disapproved of him, so he was not allowed to write to her.
Not long after graduating, he signed a publishing deal with Gutheil, where Six Songs (Op 4), Two Pieces (Op 2) and Aleko were among his first pieces to be published. Rachmaninoff spent the summer of 1893 composing several pieces. However, a year late he started to lose inspiration to compose anything at all; he was affected by the death of his friend Tchaikovsky. He started giving piano lessons again to earn money. After a bad run of luck however, he struggled with money.
Sadly, in 1897, Rachmaninoff became further disillusioned after a negative review of his Symphony No 1. This piece was never performed again while he was alive. Unfortunately, such the extent of Rachmaninoff’s depression, that he composed very little for the next few years. It was only the wages he earnt from him giving piano lessons that kept him going financially ruined.
Respite came in the form of Savva Mamontov, who offered him the position of assistant conductor in the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. His spirits were lifted and by the winter of 1899, he had started composing again and even visited London to perform and conduct. The led to favourable reviews. During this period of time, he became engaged to Natalia Satina, but her parents disapproved of their wedding plans, thus leading to Rachmaninoff’s further depression.
However, his confidence returned after therapy, and in 1901, he completed his Piano Concerto No 2, which saw him back on form and which was very well received by audiences. He was awarded the Glinka Award for this composition.
On the 12th May 1902, he married his fiancée Natalia, in a small ceremony, despite her family’s protestations. Their honeymoon around Europe lasted 3 months! They put down roots in Moscow on their return and had 2 daughters, Irina in 1903 and Tatiana in 1907. Rachmaninoff took up the post of music teacher at St Catherine’s Women’s College and the Elizabeth Institute. He also finished his biggest piano composition to date Variations on a Theme of Chopin.
1904 saw a move from teaching to conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre, where he stayed for 2 seasons. He had high standards of performance. Political unrest in Russia and a lack of interest in this post, led to him leaving here in 1906. After a short holiday to Italy and with no money now coming in, Rachmaninoff returned to composing.
Russia was suffering much political unrest at this time, so in 1906, Sergei Rachmaninoff decided to move his family to Dresden in Germany, a city that he had always been fond of. Here they lived until 1909. Between 1909 and 1910, he went on tour, conducting and performing in the USA, including in New York City. The tour saw him increase his popularity in the states.
Now back in Russia, in 1910, he became the vice president of the Imperial Russian Musical Society, but only for 2 years, and between 1911 and 1913, was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society of Moscow. The following year he went on a tour of England, which was very successful. 1917 saw him perform a piano recital to support Russian soldiers who had be wounded whilst fighting in the then raging First World War. After much turmoil, he went to perform recitals in Scandinavia and he took his family with him.
While on this tour, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the USA asked him to become their conductor. He was also asked to give concerts for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to give piano recitals. He decided to decline these offers. However, in November 1918, Rachmaninoff and his family decided to relocate to live in New York City. He was extremely popular and very busy earning his living from his piano and conducting performances and touring. He made a lot of money through this and he and his family led a very comfortable life. Unfortunately, all this performing meant that the output of his composing pieces dropped dramatically. In fact, between 1918 and 1943, he composed a mere 6 pieces!
In May 1922, he decided to visit Europe on a tour, beginning with London. He then went back to Dresden for a short time. He returned to the USA, but in 1926, he decided to take a break from touring and performing to concentrate on the composing side of his life. He soon completed 2 of what would be some of the final pieces he would compose, one of which was his Piano Concerto No. 4, which he had actually started in 1917.
By 1930, he had decided that he wanted to spend summers in Europe to help inspire new compositions and he bought land in Switzerland so he could build his own new home. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff suffered a setback when in 1931, he criticised Soviet Union politics and many people boycotted his music. However, a year later he set off on performing on a long tour. Several tours followed over the years, despite having minor surgery at one point and also slipping on a floor and sustaining an injury! Fortunately, he was still able to perform at the Lucerne International Music Festival, that was held in August 1939, his final one in Europe.
Rachmaninoff returned to the USA, where he performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in late 1939. He then concentrated on recording his music, something which kept him busy until February 1942. It was at this time that his doctor advised him to move to live in a warmer location, after Rachmaninoff suffered several illnesses. So, in June that year, he and his family moved to Beverly Hills. Sadly, due to ill health, the 1942-43 concert season was to be his last. This concert was well received by audiences. During this time, he and his wife, who were now settled in the USA, became naturalised citizens of America in February 1943. Unfortunately, ill health persisted, but Rachmaninoff bravely decided to continue the tour. However, by the time he got to Florida, he was too ill to continue and the rest of the tour was cancelled and he went to hospital, where he was diagnosed with melanoma.
Sadly, his health started to decline quickly in March 1943 and he became very poorly. He died on the 28th March 1943, shortly before he would turn 70. He is buried in New York in Kensico Cemetery.
Rachmaninoff’s work continued to be popular. In 1945, his Piano Concerto No,2 was used in the film Brief Encounter and more recently in 1993, one of the protagonists in the film Groundhog Day learnt to play Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini on the piano. More recently, Ave Maria the 6th movement from The All Night Vigil Op. 37 has been arranged for brass band by Mike Kempster.