Sergei Rachmaninoff

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Rachmaninoff, Sergei Vasil’evich

 

Born Mar. 20 (Apr. 1), 1873, on the estate of Oneg (Semenovo?), present-day Novgorod Raion, Novgorod Oblast; died Mar. 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, Calif.; buried in Valhalla, near New York. Russian composer, pianist, and conductor.

Rachmaninoff came from the gentry. He began to play the piano at the age of four or five, studying with his mother and with A. D. Ornatskaia. In 1882 he became a pupil of V. V. Dem-ianskii at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1885 he went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied piano with N. S. Zverev and A. Siloti and composition with S. I. Taneev and A. S. Arenskii.

As a student, Rachmaninoff composed a number of pieces, including the art song “In the Silent Night” and the Concerto No. 1 for piano and orchestra (1891; second edition, 1917). He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory courses in piano (1891) and composition (1892, winner of the gold medal). To meet the requirements for the diploma in composition, he composed the one-act opera Aleko (libretto by V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, based on A. S. Pushkin’s narrative poem The Gypsies and presented in 1893 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow).

Among the works composed by Rachmaninoff in the 1890’s are Piéces-Fantaisies (including the Prelude in C sharp minor) and Moments musicaux for piano (1896); the Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos (1893); the symphonic fantasy The Rock (1893); the Elegiac Trio (in memory of P. I. Tchaikovsky, 1893); the Caprice bohémien for orchestra (1894); the Symphony No. 1 (1895); and more than 20 art songs, including “Spring Waters.”

Rachmaninoff was a conductor with the Private Opera of Moscow (1897–98), where he met F. I. Chaliapin, and with the Bolshoi Theater. He also conducted symphonic concerts sponsored by the Circle of Russian Music Lovers (1904–06).

From 1900, Rachmaninoff appeared regularly in concerts as a pianist and as a conductor in Russia and abroad. He toured a number of European countries between 1907 and 1914 and the USA and Canada in 1909–10. From 1909 to 1912 he participated in the Russian Music Society, serving as an inspector for the board of directors. From 1909 to 1917 he was associated with the Russian Music Publishing House.

Among the works composed by Rachmaninoff during the first two decades of the 20th century are the Concerto No. 2 (1901) and Concerto No. 3 (1909) for piano and orchestra, the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (based on themes in a painting by A. Boecklin, 1909), the operas The Miserly Knight (based on a work by Pushkin, 1904) and Francesca da Rimini (based on Dante), and the cantata The Spring (1902). Also among his works from this period are The Bells, a poem for orchestra, chorus, and soloists (1913); the Vesper Mass for a cappella chorus (1915); four series of art songs and a sonata for cello and piano (1901); the Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos (1901); two sonatas (1907, 1913); and 23 preludes and 17 études for piano (1911, 1917).

In December 1917, Rachmaninoff went on tour in Scandinavia. In 1918 he settled in the USA. From 1918 to 1943 he concentrated on giving piano recitals in the USA and Europe. He composed only a few new works: the Concerto No. 4 for Piano (1926) and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini for piano and orchestra (1934), three Russian folk songs for orchestra and chorus (1926), the Variations on a Theme by Corelli for piano (1931), the Symphony No. 3 (1936), and the Symphonic Dances (1940). He contributed the proceeds from his concerts during 1941–42 to the Soviet Army.

Rachmaninoff was one of the most important musicians of the turn of the 20th century. His art is distinguished by its true-to-life quality, its democratic orientation, and its sincere, emotionally full artistic expression. Rachmaninoff followed the best traditions of classical music, especially Russian traditions. His music combines a keenly lyrical sense of an era of tremendous social upheavals with images of his homeland. Rachmaninoff created inspired musical pictures of the Russian landscape. In his work, the passionate outburst of irreconcilable protest coexists with peaceful contemplation, trembling apprehension with decisive force of will, and gloomy, tragic brooding with ecstatic hymns.

Rachmaninoff’s music, which possesses an inexhaustible wealth of melody and polyphony, shows the influence of the Russian folk song and certain features of the znamennyi chant (Russian church melodies). One of the unusual foundations of his musical style is an integral combination of the breadth and freedom of melodic inspiration with rhythmic energy. The transformation of bell-like sonorities lend national color to Rachmaninoff’s harmonic language. Rachmaninoff developed the achievements of Russian lyrical dramatic and epic symphonic composition. The theme of the homeland, which is central to the composer’s mature works, is most fully embodied in his major instrumental compositions, especially the second and third piano concerti. In his late works, the theme of the homeland takes on a lyrical, tragic tone.

As a pianist, Rachmaninoff was the equal of F. Liszt and A. Rubinstein. Phenomenal technique, sonorous tone, and flexible, forceful rhythmics were subordinate in his playing to highly spiritual, graphically vivid expression. Rachmaninoff was also one of the most important operatic and symphonic conductors of his time.

REFERENCES

Asaf’ev, B. V. S. V. Rakhmaninov. [Moscow] 1945.
S. V. Rakhmaninov: Sb. statei i materialov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
S. V. Rakhmaninov i russkaia opera: Sb. statei. Moscow, 1947.
Molodye gody S. V. Rakhmaninova, Pis’ma, Vospominaniia. Leningrad-Moscow, 1949.
Ponizovkin, Iu. Rakhmaninov—pianist, interpretator sobslvennykh proizvedenii. Moscow, 1965.
Briantseva, V. Fortepiannye p’esy Rakhmaninova. Moscow, 1966.
Briantseva, V. Detstvo i iunost’ Sergeia Rakhmaninova, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1972.
S. V. Rakhmaninov v Ivanovke: Sb. materialov i dokumentov. Voronezh, 1971.
Keldysh, Iu. Rakhmaninov i ego vremia. Moscow, 1973.
Vospominaniia o Rakhmaninove, Sost. Z. Apetian, vols. 1–2,4th ed. Moscow, 1974.
Pamiati S. V. Rakhmaninova (collection of reminiscences). New York, 1946.
Rachmaninoff’s Recollections Told by Oscar von Riesemann. London-New York, 1934.
Bertensson, S., and J. Leyda. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music. New York, 1956.

V. N. BRIANTSEVA