Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoffref_label|A|a|none ( _ru. Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов, "Sergej Vasil’evič Rakhmaninov", OldStyleDateDY|1 April|1873|20 March – 28 March 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. He was one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, the last great representative of Russian late Romanticism in classical music. Early influences of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers gave way to a thoroughly personal idiom which included a pronounced lyricism, expressive breadth, structural ingenuity and a tonal palette of rich, distinctive orchestral colors. [Norris, "New Grove, 2nd. ed.", 707.]

Understandably, the piano figures prominently in Rachmaninoff's compositional output, either as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble. He made it a point, however, to use his own skills as a performer to explore fully the expressive possibilities of the instrument. Even in his earliest works, he revealed a sure grasp of idiomatic piano writing and a striking gift for melody. In some of his early orchestral pieces he showed the first signs of a talent for tone painting, which he would perfect in "The Isle of the Dead",Norris, "New Grove", 15:555] and he began to show a similar penchant for vocal writing in two early sets of songs, Opp. 4 and 8. [Norris, "Oxford", 1025.] Rachmaninoff's masterpiece, however, is his choral symphony "The Bells", in which all of his talents are fused and unified. [Kennedy, "Oxford", 577.]

Rachmaninoff sometimes felt threatened by the success of modernists such as Scriabin and Prokofiev and wondered whether to cease composing even before he left Russia. [Maes, 203.] His musical philosophy was rooted in the Russian spiritual tradition, where the role of the artist was to create beauty and to speak the truth from the depths of his heart. [Figes, 542.] In his last major interview, in 1941, he admitted his music, like Russian music, was a product of his temperament. [Rakhmaninov, S., "Literaturnoe nasledie v-3-x tomakh" (Moscow, 1978).] He said, on another occasion, "The new kind of music seems to create not from the heart but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel. They have not the capacity to make their works exalt—they meditate, protest, analyze, reason, calculate and brood, but they do not exalt." [Cited in Hancock, J., "Rachmaninov" (London, 1996), 82.]



Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, near Novgorod, in north-western Russia, into an aristocratic family of tatar origins (apparent in the Arabic stem of his surname i.e. Rahman) with strong musical and military leanings. His parents were both amateur pianists. When he was four, his mother gave him casual piano lessons,cite web |url= |title=Biography for Sergei Rachmaninoff |accessdate=2007-12-14 |author=Shelokhonov, Steve |year=2007 |work=IMDb ] but it was his paternal grandfather, Arkady Alexandrovich Rachmaninoff, who brought Anna Ornatskaya, a teacher from Saint Petersburg, to teach Sergei in 1882. Ornatskaya remained for "two or three years", until the family home had to be sold to settle debts and the Rachmaninoffs moved to Moscow. Sergei studied at the Conservatory before moving to Moscow alone to study piano under Nikolai Zverev and Alexander Siloti (who was his cousin and a former student of Franz Liszt). He also studied harmony under Anton Arensky and counterpoint under Sergei Taneyev. Rachmaninoff was found to be quite lazy, failing most of his classes, and it was the strict regime of the Zverev home that instilled discipline in the boy.

In his early years, he showed great skill in composition. While still a student, he wrote the one-act opera, "Aleko", for which he was awarded a gold medal in composition, his First Piano Concerto, and a set of piano pieces, "Morceaux de Fantaisie" (Op. 3, 1892), which includes the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor. The composer later became annoyed by the public’s fascination with this piece, composed when he was just 19 years old. He would often tease an expectant audience in the days when it was traditional for the audience to request particular compositions, by asking, "Oh, must I?" or claiming inability to remember anything else. [Francis Crociata’s liner notes to RCA's 10-CD set of Rachmaninoff’s recordings] In Moscow, he met the prominent composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who became an important mentor and commissioned the teenage Rachmaninoff to arrange a piano transcription of the suite from his ballet "The Sleeping Beauty". Rachmaninoff confided in Zverev his desire to compose more, requesting a private room where he could compose in silence. Zverev saw him only as a pianist and severed his links with the boy, refusing to even speak to him for three years. Rachmaninoff moved out and continued to compose.Norris, "New Grove", 15:550.]

etbacks and recovery

The sudden death of Tchaikovsky in 1893 made a strong impression on Rachmaninoff; he immediately began writing a second "Trio élégiaque" to his memory, clearly revealing the depth and sincerity of his grief in the music's overwhelming aura of gloom. [Norris, "New Grove, 2nd. ed.", 709.] His First Symphony (Op. 13, 1896) premiered on 27 March 1897 in one of a long-running series of "Russian Symphony Concerts," but was likened by nationalist composer and critic César Cui to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt, suggesting it would be admired by the "inmates" of a music conservatory in hell. [Kyui, Ts., "Tretiy russkiy simfonicheskiy kontsert," "Novosti i birzhevaya gazeta" (17 March 1897(o.s.)), 3.] (The fact the piece had been given a poor performance under Glazunov was not taken into consideration at the time. He made poor use of rehearsal time and was premiering two other works in the same concert. His alcoholism may have also been a factor, [Norris, "New Grove", 709.] as the composer's wife attested years later. Alexander Ossovsky in his Memoir about Rachmaninoff [Ossovsky Alexander Viacheslavovich (1871-1957), renowned critic and musicologist and close friend of Rachmaninoff, see external links.] tells first hand story about this event, meanwhile Ossovsky doesn't suggest that Glazunov had a problem with alcohol). This horrific reception, two disastrous visits to writer Leo Tolstoy's estate and his distress over the Russian Orthodox Church's objection to his marrying his cousin, Natalia Satina, contributed to a period of severe depression that lasted three years, during which he wrote virtually no music. [Norris, "New Grove 2nd Ed.", 709-710.]

One stroke of good fortune came from impresario Savva Mamontov, who two years earlier had founded the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company. He offered Rachmaninoff the post of assistant conductor for the 1897-8 season, which the cash-strapped composer accepted. The rehearsal for the first opera he was slated to conduct, Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar", went badly because he did not know he had to cue the singers. Once he learned this lesson, his experience that season was a fruitful one, giving him valuable experience in conducting an orchestra. The musical success of the performances and the consequent public approval persuaded him to take a more positive look at himself, and the intense hard work left him no room for introspection. He also met the bass Fyodor Chaliapin through Mamontov's opera company, starting what would become a long, deep friendship. [Harrison, 84-85.]

In 1900, Rachmaninoff began a course of autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, himself an amateur musician. Rachmaninoff quickly recovered confidence and overcame his writer's block. A result of these sessions was the composition of Piano Concerto No. 2 (Op. 18, 1900–01), dedicated to Dr. Dahl. The piece was very well received at its premiere, at which Rachmaninoff was soloist, and remains one of his most popular compositions. Rachmaninoff's spirits were further bolstered when, after years of engagement, he was finally allowed to marry Natalia. They were married in a suburb of Moscow by an army priest on 29 April 1902, using the family's military background to subvert the church. Although he had an affair with the 22-year-old singer Nina Koshetz in 1916, [ [ __Nina/hauptteil_koshetz__nina.html Koshetz, Nina ] at] his and Natalia's union lasted until the composer's death. After several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninoff was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in 1904, although political reasons led to his resignation in March 1906, after which he stayed in Italy until July. He spent the following three winters in Dresden, Germany, intensively composing, and returning to the family estate of Ivanovka every summer.

Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909, an event for which he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30, 1909) as a calling card. This successful tour made him a popular figure in America. Nevertheless, he loathed the tour and declined offers of future American concerts.Norris, "New Grove", 15:553.]


The Russian Revolution of 1917 meant the end of Russia as the composer had known it. With this change followed the loss of his estate, his way of life, his livelihood and essentially his world. On 22 December 1917, he left St. Petersburg for Helsinki with his wife and two daughters on an open sledge, having only a few notebooks with sketches of his own compositions and two orchestral scores: his unfinished opera "Monna Vanna" and Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "The Golden Cockerel". (The latter would become the indirect source of the opening motif for Rachmaninoff's final composition, the "Symphonic Dances".) They took a train to Stockholm, arriving there for Christmas. They never returned to their homeland. The Rachmaninoffs settled in Copenhagen. He spent a year giving concerts in Scandinavia while also laboring to widen his concert repertory. He realized that his and his family's livelihood depended on a steady income and he was more likely to achieve this as a concert performer than as a composer.

Near the end of 1918, he received three offers of lucrative American contracts. Although he declined all three, he decided the United States might offer a solution to his financial concerns. He departed Kristiania (Oslo) for New York on 1 November 1918, marking the start of the American period of his life. Once the family arrived in New York, Rachmaninoff quickly chose an agent, Charles Ellis, and accepted the gift of a piano from Steinway before playing 40 concerts in a four-month period. At the end of the 1919-20 season, he also signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1921, the Rachmaninoffs bought a house in the United States, where they consciously recreated the atmosphere of Ivanovka, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing Russian customs.Norris, "New Grove", 15:554.]

Due to his busy concert career, Rachmaninoff's output as composer slowed tremendously. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, while living in the U.S. and Europe, he completed only six compositions. This was partly due to spending much of his time performing in order to support himself and his family, but the main cause was homesickness. [cite web|accessdate=2008-03-02|publisher=8notes|title=Sergei Rachmaninoff Biography|url=] When he left Russia, it was as if he had left behind his inspiration. His revival as composer became possible only after he had built himself a new home, Villa Senar on Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939. There, in the comfort of his own villa which reminded him of his old family estate, Rachmaninoff composed the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", one of his best known works, in 1934. He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44, 1935–36) and the "Symphonic Dances" (Op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the "Symphonic Dances" in 1941 in the Academy of Music.

In late 1940 or 1941 he was approached by the makers of the British film "Dangerous Moonlight" to write a short concerto-like piece for use in the film, but he declined. The job went to Richard Addinsell and the orchestrator Roy Douglas, who came up with the "Warsaw Concerto". [cite web|url=|title=Richard Addinsell - Films as composer|accessdate=2008-10-10|]

Rachmaninoff fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942 and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced melanoma. The family was informed but the composer was not. Well before this diagnosis Rachmaninoff had decided the 1942-43 season would be his last as a concert pianist. Every year since his arrival in the United States he had taken exhausting tours, and he had recently been suffering from lumbago, arthritis and extreme fatigue. By January 1943 he was clearly ill. A Russian doctor diagnosed pleurisy. Rachmaninoff insisted the tour go on. He and his wife became American citizens on 1 February 1943. His last recital, given on 17 February 1943 at the Alumni Gymnasium of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, prophetically featured Chopin's "Second Piano Sonata", which contains the famous Funeral March. A statue called "Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert", designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, now stands in World Fair Park in Knoxville as a permanent tribute to Rachmaninoff. He became so ill after this recital that he had to return to his home in Los Angeles. [Norris, "New Grove", 15:554-555.]

As Rachmaninoff became more and more aware of the fact that he would never again return to his beloved homeland, he was overwhelmed with melancholia. Most people who knew him later in life described him as the saddest man they had ever known. In a 1961 interview, conductor Eugene Ormandy declared, "Rachmaninoff was really two people. He hated his own music and was usually unhappy about it when he performed or conducted it in public so that the public saw only this side of him. But, among his close friends, he had a very good sense of humor and was in good spirits." [cite web|url=|title=Eugene Ormandy and His Orchestra||accessdate=2008-10-10]


Rachmaninoff died of melanoma on 28 March 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, just four days before his 70th birthday. He had wanted to be buried at the Villa Senar, his estate in Switzerland, but the conditions of World War II made fulfilling this request impossible. [Norris, "New Grove, 2nd ed.", 713.] He was therefore interred on June 1 in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.cite book |last=Harrison |first=Max |title=Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings |year=2006 |url= |publisher=Continuum |location=London |isbn=0-8264-9312-2 ]



Rachmaninoff wrote five works for piano and orchestra—four concerti plus the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini". Of the concerti, the Second and Third are the most popular. The Third, widely considered one of the most difficult piano concertos, is a favorite among virtuosos. The composer also preferred the Third over the Second because it "fell more easily under the fingers" [Bertenssohn and Leyva, page cit. needed.] than the famous Second and was thus more comfortable to play. The composer himself admired the way Vladimir Horowitz and Walter Gieseking played the Third, observing that Horowitz "swallowed it whole" when they played the work together on two pianos in the basement of Steinway & Sons in New York. However, the story that Rachmaninoff himself seldom played the concerto afterwards is a legend, carefully fostered by Horowitz. The composer actually played it 85 times during his concert career. [Harrison, 162.] Moreover, Horowitz initially did not have such good luck with the piece himself, as he told Philip Ramey in 1977:

I played it in Italy at La Scala [and] in Paris, where they didn't like Rachmaninoff too much. Perhaps the piece was too modern for them; I mean "modern" as a concerto conception, not as music. When Rachmaninoff premiered it the virtuosi were playing concertos by Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt. Maybe they thought the Rachmaninoff was too long and diffuse, too complicated, too thick textured. The piano part is somewhat overwritten." [Plaskin, 102-103.]

s, both of which are large scale and virtuosic in their technical demands. Rachmaninoff also composed works for two pianos, four hands, including two Suites (the first subtitled "Fantasie-Tableaux"), a version of the "Symphonic Dances" (Op. 45), and an arrangement of the C sharp minor Prelude. He also wrote a "Russian Rhapsody" and arranged his First Symphony (below) for piano four-hands. Both these works were published posthumously.

Rachmaninoff wrote three symphonies, of which, the first in D minor was a gargantuan failure at its premiere. For many years it was believed lost; however after his death, the orchestral parts were found in the Leningrad Conservatory and the score was reconstructed, leading to its second performance (and American premiere) on 19 March 1948 at an all-Rachmaninoff concert, marking the fifth anniversary of the composer's death. The second and third symphonies are both considered among his greatest works. Other orchestral works include "The Rock" (Op. 7), "Caprice Bohémien" (Op. 12), "The Isle of the Dead" (Op. 29), and the "Symphonic Dances" (Op. 45).

Rachmaninoff wrote two major a cappella choral works: the "Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom" and the "All-Night Vigil" (also known as the "Vespers"). His choral symphony "The Bells" is based on the translated poetry of Edgar Allan Poe; its four-movement program signifies the circle of life: youth, marriage, maturity, and death. The "Spring" Cantata is lesser known and rarely performed; the same can be said about his "Three Russian Songs" and his early "Concerto for Choir" (a cappella). The "All-Night Vigil" and "The Bells" are widely admired: Rachmaninoff himself considered them his favorites among all his works. [Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, Sophia Satina, "Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music", Indiana University Press, 2001, [,M1 p. 191] ] He also completed three operas: "Aleko", "The Miserly Knight," and "Francesca da Rimini". He started another opera in 1907, based on a work by Maurice Maeterlinck, titled "Monna Vanna", but did not finish it. It was completed by Igor Buketoff and had its first performance in 1984.

His chamber music includes two piano trios, both which are named "Trio Elégiaque" (the second of which is a memorial tribute to Tchaikovsky), and a Cello Sonata. In his chamber music, the piano tends to be perceived by some to dominate the ensemble. He also composed many songs for voice and piano, to texts by Aleksey Tolstoy, Aleksandr Pushkin, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Victor Hugo and Anton Chekhov, among others. Among his most popular songs is the wordless "Vocalise".

Composition style

Rachmaninoff's style is fundamentally Russian: his music showed initially the influence of Tchaikovsky. Beginning in the mid-1890s, his compositions began showing a more individual tone. Even his First Symphony has many original features. Its brutal gestures and uncompromising power of expression were unprecedented in Russian music at the time. Its flexible rhythms, sweeping lyricism and stringent economy of thematic material were all features he would keep and refine in subsequent works. After the three fallow years following the poor reception of the symphony, Rachmaninoff's style began developing significantly. He started leaning towards sumptuous harmonies and broadly lyrical, often passionate melodies. His orchestration became subtler and more varied, with textures carefully contrasted, and his writing on the whole became more concise. [Norris, "New Grove 2nd ed.", 714-715.]

Especially important is Rachmaninoff's use of unusually wide-spread chords for bell-like sounds: this occurs in many pieces, most notably in the choral symphony"The Bells", the "Second Piano Concerto", the E flat major "Etude-Tableaux" (Op. 33 No. 7), and the B-minor prelude (Op. 32 No. 10). He was also fond of Russian Orthodox chants. He uses them most perceptibly in his "Vespers", but many of his melodies found their origins in these chants. The opening melody of the First Symphony is derived from chants. (Note that the opening melody of the Third Piano Concerto is not derived from chants; when asked, Rachmaninoff said that "it had written itself"). [Citation
last = Yasser
first = Joseph
title = The Opening Theme of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and its Liturgical Prototype
journal = Musical Quarterly
volume = LV
pages = 313-328
year = 1969
] Rachmaninoff's frequently used motifs include the "Dies Irae", often just the fragments of the first phrase. This is especially prevalent in "The Bells", "The Isle of the Dead", the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", and in all of his symphonies.

Rachmaninoff had great command of counterpoint and fugal writing, thanks to his studies with Taneyev. The above-mentioned occurrence of the "Dies Irae" in the Second Symphony is but a small example of this. Very characteristic of his writing is chromatic counterpoint. This talent was paired with a confidence in writing in both large- and small-scale forms. The Third Piano Concerto especially shows a structural ingenuity, while each of the preludes grows from a tiny melodic or rhythmic fragment into a taut, powerfully evocative miniature, crystallizing a particular mood or sentiment while employing a complexity of texture, rhythmic flexibility and a pungent chromatic harmony. [Norr's, "New Grove 2nd ed.", 715.]

His compositional style had already begun changing before the October Revolution deprived him of his homeland. The harmonic writing in "The Bells" (composed in 1913 but not published until 1920 [Harrison, 191.] [This may have been due to Rachmaninoff's main publisher, Gutheil, having died in 1914 and Gutheil's catalog being acquired by Serge Koussevitsky. (Harrison, 191).] ) became as advanced as in any of the works Rachmaninoff would write in Russia, partly because the melodic material has a harmonic aspect which arises from its chromatic ornamentation. [Harrison, 190-191.] Further changes are apparent in the revised First Piano Concerto, which he finished just before leaving Russia, as well as in the Op. 38 songs and Op. 39 Études-Tableaux. In both these sets Rachmaninoff was less concerned with pure melody than with coloring. His near-Impressionist style perfectly matched the texts by symbolist poets. [Norris, "New Grove, 2nd ed.", 716.] The Op. 39 Études-Tableaux are among the most demanding pieces he wrote for any medium, both technically and in the sense that the player must see beyond any technical challenges to a considerable array of emotions, then unify all these aspects [Harrison, 207.]

The composer's friend Vladimir Wilshaw noticed this compositional change continuing in the early 1930s, with a difference between the sometimes very extroverted Op. 39 études (the composer had broken a string on the piano at one performance) and the "Variations on a Theme of Corelli" (Op. 42, 1931). The variations show an even greater textural clarity than in the Op. 38 songs, combined with a more abrasive use of chromatic harmony and a new rhythmic incisiveness. This would be characteristic of all his later works — the Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 40, 1926) is composed in a more emotionally introverted style, with a greater clarity of texture Nevertheless, some of his most beautiful (nostalgic and melancholy) melodies occur in the Third Symphony, "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", and "Symphonic Dances". [Norris, "New Grove, 2nd ed.", 716.]

" and the chant "Blessed be the Lord" ("Blagosloven yesi, Gospodi") from his "Vespers".Norris, "New Grove, 2nd ed.", 716.]

Fluctuating reputation

His reputation as a composer generated a variety of opinions, before his music gained steady recognition across the world. The 1954 edition of "Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians" notoriously dismissed his music as "monotonous in texture ... consist [ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes" and predicted that his popular success was "not likely to last". To this, Harold C. Schonberg, in his "Lives of the Great Composers", responded, "It is one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference."Schonberg, "Composers", 520.] Indeed, not only have Rachmaninoff's works become part of the standard repertoire, but their popularity among both musicians and audiences has, if anything, increased since the middle of the twentieth century, with some of his symphonies and other orchestral works, songs and choral music recognized as masterpieces alongside the more familiar piano works.Fact|date=May 2008



Rachmaninoff possessed a formidable piano technique. His playing was marked by precision, rhythmic drive, a refined legato and an ability of maintaining complete clarity when playing works with complex textures. He applied these qualities to excellent effect in music by Chopin, especially the B flat minor Piano Sonata. The remainder of Rachmaninoff's repertoire, excepting his own works, were many standard 19th Century virtuoso works plus music by Beethoven, Borodin, Debussy, Grieg, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Tchaikovsky.

might have gotten this kind of rhythmic snap from Rachmaninoff. In addition, Rachmaninoff's playing had extreme musical elegance, with attention paid to the shape of the melodic line. His playing possessed a masculine, aristocratic kind of poetry. While never becoming sentimental, he managed to wring dry the emotional essence of the music. He did so through subtly nuanced phrasing within his strong, clear, unmannered projection of melodic lines. [Schonberg, "Virtuosi", 315, 317.]

Unlike most pianists, Rachmaninoff possessed extremely large hands, with which he could easily maneuver through the most complex chordal configurations. His left hand technique was unusually powerful. His playing was marked by "definition"—where other pianists' playing became blurry-sounding from overuse of the pedal or deficiencies in finger technique, Rachmaninoff's textures were always crystal clear. Only Josef Hofmann shared this kind of clarity with him. [Schonberg, "Virtuosi", 317.] Both men had Anton Rubinstein as a model for this kind of playing—Hofmann as a student of Rubinstein's [Schonberg, "Pianists", 384.] and Rachmaninoff from hearing his famous series of historical recitals in Moscow while studying with Zverev. [Riesemann, 49-52.]

Incidentally, it might not have been a coincidence that the two pieces Rachmaninoff singled out for praise from Rubinstein's concerts became cornerstones for his own recital programs. The compositions were Beethoven's "Appassionata" and Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. Moreover, he may have based his interpretation of the Chopin sonata on Rubinstein's. Rachmaninoff biographer Barrie Martyn points out similarities between written accounts of Rubinstein's interpretation and Rachmaninoff's audio recording of the work. [Martyn,368, 403-406]


It was not just Rachmaninoff's pianism which captured his audiences' attention, but also a sort of reverse charisma that may have been something else he inherited from Anton Rubinstein. Like Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff was able to perform with passion yet look completely uninvolved, his face looking as though carved from granite.Harrison, 267] Brachvogel wrote a passage about Rubinstein that could easily be mistaken for a Rachmaninoff review:

No artist has ever shown to his audiences so merciless a front. Both his programmes and his attitude are absolutely uncompromising. At first sight one is conscious stern, even inimical, in his bearing towards the audience, as though the chasm were fixed between them ... He has the head of an inspired sphinx, upon whose face not even the paroxysms of enthusiasm can call forth a smile; if the color of life did not illuminate it, it might be of stone.Harrison, 267.]

Listeners were awed when Rachmaninoff—grave, stately, tall (6'6") and unsmiling, with his slightly Mongoloid features and close-cropped head of hair—walked quietly to the piano. Gestures at the keyboard were down to a minimum. His body was immobile, with everything done with forearms and fingers. [Schonberg, "Virtuosi", 315.]


From those barely-mobile fingers came an unforced, bronzelike sonority and a feeling of infallibility. Rachmaninoff may have been one of the most accurate of pianists; correct notes seemed to be built into his very constitution, and a wrong note at a Rachmaninoff recital never seemed to occur. [Schonberg, "Virtuosi", 315.] Artur Rubinstein wrote:

He had the secret of the golden, living tone which comes from the heart ... I was always under the spell of his glorious and inimitable tone which could make me forget my uneasiness about his too rapidly fleeting fingers and his exaggerated "rubatos". There was always the irresistible sensuous charm, not unlike Kreisler's'. [Rubinstein, 1980., 87-89, 468.]

Coupled to this tone was a vocal quality not unlike that of Chopin's playing. With Rachmaninoff's extensive operatic experience, he was a fine admirer of singing. As his records demonstrate, he possessed a tremendous ability to make a musical line sing, no matter how long the notes or how complex the supporting texture, with most of his interpretations taking on a narrative quality. With the stories he told at the keyboard came multiple voices—a polyphonic dialogue, no least in terms of dynamics. His 1940 recording of his transcription of the song "Daisies" captures this quality extremely well. On the recording, separate musical strands enter as if from various human voices in eloquent conversation. This ability came from an exceptional independence of fingers and hands. [Harrison, 270.]


Rachmaninoff also possessed an uncanny memory—one that would help put him in good stead when he had to learn the standard piano repertory as a 45-year-old exile. He could hear a piece of music, even a symphony, then play it back the next day, the next year, or a decade after that. Siloti would give him a long and demanding piece to learn, such as Brahms' "Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel". Two days later Rachmaninoff would play it "with complete artistic finish." Goldenweiser said, "Whatever composition was ever mentioned—piano, orchestral, operatic, or other—by a Classical or contemporary composer, if Rachmaninoff had at any time heard it, and most of all if he liked it, he played it as though it were a work he had studied thoroughly." [Schonberg, "Composers", 522.]


Regardless of the music, Rachmaninoff always planned his performances carefully. He based his interpretations on the theory that each piece of music has a "culminating point." Regardless of where that point was or at which dynamic within that piece, the performer had to know how to approach it with absolute calculation and precision; otherwise, the whole construction of the piece could crumble and the piece could become disjointed. This was a practice he learned from Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin, a lifelong friend.Norris, "New Grove", 714.]

He slowly learned the pieces he played, detail by detail. Abram Chasins told about visiting Rachmaninoff one day and stopping outside. Rachmaninoff "was practicing Chopin's Étude in thirds but at such a snail's pace that it took me a while to recognize it because so much time elapsed between each finger stroke and the next. Fascinated, I clocked this remarkable exhibition: 20 seconds per bar was his pace for almost an hour while I waited riveted to the spot, quite unable to ring the bell." [Chasins, 1957, p. 44.] Paradoxically, Rachmaninoff often sounded like he was improvising, though he actually was not. While his interpretations were comprised of mosaics of tiny details, when those mosaics came together in performance, they might, according to the tempo of the piece being played, fly past at great speed, giving the impression of instant thought. [Harrison, 268.]

"One must play a piece a thousand times, making a thousand experiments, listening, comparing, judging," he said, "for only as the individual learns to decide and to control his musical effects does he become an interpreter and come near to the stature whose works he should recreate. And only through unceasing labor can he accomplish such a mission." ["the Etude", April 1932.] Rachmaninoff built his interpretations methodically, down to the last, fleeting shadow-like nuance, putting together readings of perfect architectural balance and inexorable musical logic. [Harrison, 268.] Josef Hofmann admitted to him, "I dare say that I do not plan how to build a composition and occasionally it happens to sound well." [Schonberg, "Pianists", 390.]

One advantage Rachmannoff had in this building process over most of his contemporaries was in approaching the pieces he played from the perspective of a composer rather than that of an interpreter. He believed "interpretation demands something of the creative instinct. If you are a composer, you have an affinity with other composers. You can make contact with their imaginations, knowing something of their problems and their ideals. You can give their works "color". That is the most important thing for me in my interpretations, "color". So you make music live. Without color it is dead." [From "Conversations with Rachmaninoff" by Basil Mayne, "Musical Opinion", October 1936,.] Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff also possessed a sense of structure far better than many of his contemporaries, such as Hofmann, or the majority of pianists from the previous generation, judging from their respective recordings. [Harrison, 270.]

A recording which showcases Rachmaninoff's approach is the Liszt Second Polonaise, recorded in 1925. Percy Grainger, who had been influenced by the composer and Liszt specialist Feruccio Busoni, had himself recorded the same piece a few years earlier. Rachmaninoff's performance is far more taut and concentrated than Grainger's. The Russian's drive and monumental conception bear a considerable difference to the Australian's more delicate perceptions. Grainger's textures are elaborate. Rachmaninoff shows the filigree as essential to the work's structure, not simply decorative. [Harrison, 251.]



Many of Rachmaninoff's recordings are acknowledged classics. Rachmaninoff recorded first for Edison Records on their "Diamond Disc" records, since they claimed the best audio fidelity in recording the piano at the time. Rachmaninoff believed his own performances to be variable in quality and requested that he be allowed to approve any recordings for commercial release. Edison agreed but still issued multiple takes, a common practice in the gramophone record industry at the time. This angered Rachmaninoff, and he left Edison and signed a contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1920 and with its successor, RCA Victor. The company was pleased to comply with Rachmaninoff's restrictions, and proudly advertised him as one of their great recording artists.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 devastated the American recording industry. Many of Rachmaninoff's contemporaries, such as Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz, signed recording contracts with Victor's British associate, His Master's Voice, whose catalog was still expanding. Rachmaninoff did not do this, instead electing to not make any recordings between 1930 and 1934. [Harrison, 250-251.] Had he not gone into this self-imposed moratorium, Rachmaninoff would still have had to deal with a new recording head, Charles O'Connell, who cared neither for his pianism nor for his compositions. [Matthew-Walker, "IPQ"] O'Connell was hired in 1931 and, arguably, was watching production expenses at the height of the Great Depression. However, he continued to refuse many of the composer's recording suggestions well after the economic tide had turned. [Matthew-Walker, IPQ".] Because of continued friction with O'Connell, Rachmaninoff considered switching to EMI, even scheduling three days of recording sessions in September 1937 to conduct his Third Symphony and play his First Piano Concerto for them. Rachmaninoff was uncertain about these sessions, however; they were postponed, and eventually cancelled, even though EMI had already announced the release of the planned recordings. [Matthew-Walker, 120.]

Particularly renowned are his renditions of Schumann's "Carnaval" and Chopin's "Funeral March Sonata", along with many shorter pieces. He recorded all four of his piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra, including two versions of the second concerto with Leopold Stokowski conducting, and a world premiere recording of the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", soon after the first performance (1934) with the Philadelphians under Stokowski. The first, third, and fourth concertos were recorded with Eugene Ormandy. Rachmaninoff wanted to record several other major piano works, including Beethoven's "Waldstein Sonata", Liszt's "Sonata in B minor" and his own "Symphonic Dances" in a two-piano collaboration with Vladimir Horowitz, but RCA turned him down. His final recordings were made for RCA Victor in February 1942; a Musicians Union recording ban prevented him from making further recordings before his death the following year.

Rachmaninoff also made three greatly admiredWho|date=May 2008 recordings conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in his own "Third Symphony", his symphonic poem "Isle of the Dead", and his orchestration of "Vocalise".

Piano rolls

Rachmaninoff was also involved in various ways with music on piano rolls. Several manufacturers, and in particular the Aeolian Company, had perforated his compositions on music rolls from about 1900 onwards. [Music for the Pianola and the Aeriol Piano, The Aeolian Company, New York, July 1901.] His sister-in-law, Sofia Satina, remembered him at the family estate at Ivanovka, pedalling gleefully through a set of rolls of his Second Piano Concerto, apparently acquired from a German source, [Harrison 2006, [,M1 p.223] ] most probably the Aeolian Company's Berlin subsidiary, the Choralion Company. Aeolian in London created a set of three rolls of this concerto in 1909, which remained in the catalogues of its various successors until the late 1970s. [Catalogue of Music for the Pianola and Pianola-Piano, The Orchestrelle Company, London, June 1910, and many successive catalogues.]

From 1919 he made a number of recorded piano rolls for the American Piano Company's Ampico re-enacting piano; according to the Ampico publicity department, he initially disbelieved that a roll of punched paper could provide an accurate record, so he was invited to listen to a proof copy of his first recording. After the performance, he was quoted as saying "Gentlemen — I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!" For demonstration purposes, he recorded the solo part of his Second Piano Concerto for Ampico, though only the second movement was used publicly and has survived. He continued to record until around 1929, though his last roll, the Chopin Scherzo in B-flat minor, was not published until October 1933. [Obenchain 1987.]

Music samples

As performer

As composer

Rachmaninoff and Marfan syndrome

Along with his musical gifts, Rachmaninoff possessed physical gifts that may have placed him in good stead as a pianist. These gifts included exceptional height and extremely large hands with a gigantic finger stretch. They and Rachmaninoff's slender frame, long limbs, narrow head, prominent ears, and thin nose suggest that he may have had Marfan syndrome, a hereditary disorder of the connective tissue. This syndrome would have accounted for several minor ailments he suffered all his life. These included back pain, arthritis, eye strain and bruising of the fingertips. [Young, 1986.]

Modern references

Rachmaninoff's music is heavily quoted, especially themes from his second and third piano concerto, and the eighteenth variation in Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Conservatoire Rachmaninoff and Rachmaninoff vodka are named after the composer.

Bruce Beresford was signed in March 2006 to direct a feature film based on Rachmaninoff's life, as seen through the eyes of his widow, to be called "Rhapsody". [cite news |first=Sandy |last=George |title=Grasping the poetry of features |url=,20867,20295840-15803,00.html |publisher=The Australian |date=2006-08-31 |accessdate=2007-07-09 ]

Tom Ewell's character in the comedy "The Seven Year Itch" believes a recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is the key ingredient with which to seduce the character played by Marilyn Monroe.

Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is featured prominently in the motion picture "Somewhere In Time" (1980). In the film the character played by Christopher Reeve uses the piece to win the heart of the character played by Jane Seymour in 1912, which was 22 years before it was actually composed. In an allusion to that, the movie "Groundhog Day" (1993) includes Bill Murray's character playing the same piece.

See also

* List of compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff
* List of coupled cousins


*Bertensson, Sergei and Jay Leyda, with the assistance of Sophia Satina, "Sergei Rachmaninoff—A Lifetime in Music" (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1956)). ISBN n/a.
*Harrison, Max, "Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings" (London and New York: Contunnum, 2005). ISBN 0-8264-5344-9.
*Kennedy, Michael, "The Oxford Dictionary of Music" (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). ISBN 0-19-311333-3.
*Maes, Francis, tr. Pomerans, Arnold J. and Erica Pomerans, "A History of Russian Music: From "Kamarinskaya "to" Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 0-520-21815-9.
*Matthew-Walker, Robert, “Arms of Steel, Heart of Gold,” "International Piano Quarterly", No. 11 (Spring 2000).
*Mattnew-Walker, Robert, "Rachmaninoff" (London and New York: Omnibus Press, 1980). ISBN 0-89524-208-7.
*Norris, Gregory, "Rachmaninoff" (New York: Schirmer Books, 1993). ISBN 0-02-870685-4.
*Norris, Gregory, ed. Stanley Sadie, "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians" (London: MacMillian, 1980), 20 vols. ISBN 0-333-23111-2.
*cite encyclopedia | last = Norris | first = Geoffrey | authorlink = | coauthors = | editor = Alison Latham | encyclopedia = The Oxford Companion to Music | title = Rakhmaninov, Sergey (Vasil'yevich) | url = | accessdate = | accessyear = | accessmonth = | edition = | year = 2002 | year = | month = | publisher = Oxford University Press | volume = | location = London | id = |isbn=0198662122 |oclc=59376677 | doi = | pages = | quote =
*Plaskin, Glenn, "Horowitz—a biography" (New York: William Morrow and Company, inc., 1983). ISBN 0-688-01616-2.
* Sergei Rachmaninoff, "Rachmaninoff's Recollections Told to Oskar von Rieseman," translated by Dolly Rutherford; New York, MacMillan, 1934
*"Rakhmaninov, Sergei Vasil'yevich" by Richard Taruskin, in 'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera', ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
*"The Lives of the Great Composers" by Harold C. Schonberg,(Abacus; 2Rev Ed edition) ISBN 978-0349109725
*cite book |last=Schonberg |first=Harold |authorlink= Harold C. Schonberg|coauthors= |editor= |others= |title= The Virtuosi: Classical Music's Great Performers From Paganini to Pavarotti|origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |volume= |date= |year=1988 |month= |publisher= Vintage |location= |language= |isbn=0394755324 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages= |chapter= |chapterurl= |quote=
*Harrison, Max. 2006. "Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings". London: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 0-826-49312-2.
*Obenchain, Elaine. 1987. "The Complete Catalog of Ampico Reproducing Piano Rolls" (Vestal Press edition). Vestal, NY: Vestal Press. ISBN 0-911-57262-7.


* a.note_label|A|a|none "Sergei Rachmaninoff" was the spelling the composer himself used while living in the West throughout the latter half of his life. However, transliterations of his name include "Sergey" or "Serge", and "Rachmaninov", "Rachmaninow", "Rakhmaninov", or "Rakhmaninoff".


External links

* [ Rachmaninoff Society,] Vladimir Ashkenazy President
* [ German Rachmaninoff page]
* [ Rachmaninoff's Works for Piano and Orchestra] : Analysis of Rachmaninoff's Works for Piano and Orchestra
* [ Complete list of Rachmaninoff's performances as a conductor]
* [ A complete and precise French site on Rachmaninoff]
* [ A complete list of Rachmaninoff's works]
* [ Biography] at
* [ Memorial Page at FindaGrave]
* [ Alexander Ossovsky about Rachmaninov (in Russian)]

Recordings and MIDI

* [ Selection of midi files]
* [ Rachmaninov Piano Trio No.1 sound-bites]
* [ Arkady Chubrik Classic Music Collection: Rachmaninov] , many free recordings in MP3 format (original page in Russian, but translated page in [ English] )
* [ Rachmaninoff selected works (MP3)]

Free scores

* [ Piano etudes, Op. 30–39 at]

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  • Sergei Rachmaninoff — noun composer and piano virtuoso born in Russia (1873 1943) • Syn: ↑Rachmaninoff, ↑Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff, ↑Rachmaninov, ↑Sergei Rachmaninov, ↑Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov • Instance Hypernyms: ↑composer, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

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