A few words about Sergei Rachmaninoff
Childhood and beginnings
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on April 1st, 1873 in Semionovo in western Russia. Due to financial difficulties, the Rachmaninov family and their 6 children moved to St. Petersburg a few years later. Following the separation of Vasily and Lyubov Rachmaninoff, Sergei and his brothers and sisters stayed with their mother and grandmother.
This grandmother took the young boy to Church where he discovered Orthodox singing and the beauty of the sound of the bells of St. Sophia Cathedral in Novgorod, which would become a great source of inspiration for the future composer.
After beginning the piano with his mother, he started studying it seriously at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 9. Three years later, he continued to study piano in Moscow, notably with professor Nikolaï Zverev, a friend of Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky.
This professor was known for his high standards and the discipline he imposed on his students. He regularly invited his musician friends to listen to his students, which would allow Sergei to meet Tchaikovsky.
At only 15 years old, he obtained his first degree diploma at the conservatory, thanks to two precious years alongside Zverev.
He could thus finally study harmony, music theory and free composition. These teachings would fully mark Rachmaninoff’s character and music.
In 1891 he wrote his Prelude in C sharp minor as well as his one-act opera Aleko, for which he received a composition prize in 1892.
In memory of Tchaikovsky he wrote several works, the Concerto n° 1, Prélude in C sharp minor, and Elegiac Trio No. 2 being great successes.
The first steps to success
For Rachmaninoff, success did not come immediately. Indeed, his first symphony, Op. 13, was a complete failure and took Rachmaninoff into a state of depression which would last almost 4 years, finally coming to an end with the enormous success of his second Piano Concerto, opus 18.
In 1909 he gave his first US tour, which was a great success thanks in particular to his third Concerto (op. 30), written for the occasion. Following a proposal, the composer turned down the position of permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The composer decided to return to Moscow, where he enjoyed great success in February 1914 with Les Carillons.
However, the beginning of World War I marked the end of this happy period of his life. He lost his friend Scriabin, whom he knew from Zverev.
“Music is enough for an existence, but an existence is not enough for music.”
The revolution and his flight
In 1917, the Russian Revolution forced the composer to leave his native country. Full of nostalgia and melancholy, he wrote a prelude for solo piano, the prelude to his painful departure. Following this, he did not write anymore until 1926, as he focused on a career as a virtuoso pianist with his friend Nikolai Medtner, which led him to neglect composition. He then wrote only 6 works until his death, including his Rhapsody on Theme by Paganini, Op. 43, a series of variations for piano and orchestra on Paganini’s 24th Caprice, which Rachmaninoff published in 1934.
Thanks to his new life as a musician, Rachmaninoff made several tours in the United States and France, which allowed to become quite rich. He even bought himself a house in Beverly Hills, where he settled.
“Composing is as essential a part of my being as breathing or eating. I write down on paper the interior music I hear.”
The end of his life
Sergei Rachmaninoff will end his days in California, in Beverly Hills, where he dies on March 28th, 1943, shortly before celebrating his 70th birthday. A few hours before his death, he said he could hear music, right next to him. His family and friends told him that there was no music, which led hime to conclude: “So, it’s my head”. He was buried in the Kensico cemetery (Valhalla, New York).