Composer of the month : Sergei Rachmaninoff


by Nathan Bessis

Welcome to Composer of the Month!

Each month, we celebrate the anniversary of a composer by highlighting their work and history, as well as giving you nice arrangements of some of the artist’s most iconic pieces that you can download directly into your Newzik library! This time, let’s talk about one of the greatest Russian composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff.

We have prepared a dedicated setlist for our Premium users that contains all the scores that we will study in this article, so if you are already a Newzik Premium subscriber, go ahead and download it right away. If you are a free user, it’s best you download the pieces you want from our selection later in the article (mind the 15-file import limit of your free account). Subscribe to Newzik for unlimited import!

Finally, in case you’re not a Newzician yet, get Newzik for free on the App Store to download all our free sheet music from Rachmaninoff!

To skip this section about Rachmaninoff’s life and access the free scores directly… 👉 click here !

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.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff

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.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff

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).

And now, the music!

We selected some of our favorite pieces by Rachmaninoff and spent a little bit of time analyzing them. We also offer you free sheet music for all these works, so you can practice your instrument with Newzik!

Six Romances

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Six Romances (Op.4) is the first collection of works for piano and voice published by the Russian composer. This suite of pieces composed between 1890 and 1893 bears witness to the composer’s style, which gradually asserted itself.

If you are a soprano, take a look at these six arias! The version we are offering contains both the original lyrics in Russian and a transcription in English, as well as the piano accompaniment.

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Trio Élégiaque No.1 in G minor

Another landmark work of Rachmaninoff’s youth, the Trio Élégiaque No.1 – Rachmaninoff wrote a second one when Tchaikovsky died a year later – is a piece for piano, violin and cello that was composed when he was only 19 years old, in 1892.

This single-movement work differs from most of his piano trios, which usually count three or four movements. It is a classical sonata form, with an exposition comprised of twelve phrases that will be cited symmetrically in the recapitulation. The elegiac theme is presented by the piano at the opening of the piece, lento lugubre. It is then presented again by the cello, then by the violin, while the mood is constantly changing. The work ends with a funeral march on the same theme.

If some commentators already see in this first elegy a work in memory of Tchaikosky, this interpretation is questionable, to say the least: in 1892, nothing suggested that this other illustrious Russian composer would die less than two years later.

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Deus Meus

Deus Meus is a relatively unknown six-part vocal work composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1890.

It is a motet, a musical form derived from religious texts that appeared in the 13th century and was very popular during the Renaissance. As the Romantic period also marked a return of the religious theme to the imagination of the great composers, it is only natural that this form resurfaced at this time, and just as natural that Rachmaninoff appropriated it.

A short work that you can easily share with your choir, whatever its nature!

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Études Tableaux Op.39

The Études Tableaux is one of Rachmaninoff’s best-known collections of works, which for many commentators mark the apogee of his music and his pianistic style.

This second book (Opus 39) was composed between 1916 and 1917, and includes nine piano “paintings” that are true stories told: scenes from a funfair, a snowstorm, a funeral march, or the story of Little Red Riding Hood… without Rachmaninoff ever giving a title to any of these paintings, choosing instead to leave everyone free to interpret them. In doing so, he said, he obliges us to “paint ourselves what each piece suggests to us the most”.

Pianist friends, loosen your fingers: you will need them to tackle these high level works, which will give you a hard time!

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Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini

The Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini in A minor (Opus 43) is one of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s most famous works: a work of concertante music for piano and orchestra, composed according to the indications noted on the score between July 3 and August 18, 1934. Its eighteenth variation in particular is emblematic of the Russian composer’s late Romanticism.

This piece consists of 24 variations taken from Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice for Solo Violin No.24, published in 1819 by the illustrious Italian composer (and which was also exploited by Franz Liszt in his Six Études after Paganini as well as by Johannes Brahms with the Variations on the theme of Paganini). Rachmaninoff’s 24 Variations also cites the theme Dies Irae as a reference to the popular legend that Paganini sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity and the love of a woman.

Be that as it may, Rachmaninoff had no need to sell his soul to the devil to demonstrate his prodigious talents as a pianist at the creation of this composition on November 7, 1934 in Baltimore, U.S.A., for which the composer appeared on stage at the piano, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

We offer you an arrangement for string quintet, in which each of the parts comes accompanied by the conductor.

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And also a string quintet arrangement.

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String Quartet No.1

The two String Quartets by Rachmaninoff are works of the composer’s youth, which have the particularity of having both remained unfinished! Indeed, it seems that this musical form did not correspond to the composer, who preferred concertante music and works for solo piano. Nevertheless, this first Quartet, composed by our Russian friend in 1889 just after his undergraduate degree, at only 16 years old, is of great beauty.

This chamber music work consists of two movements. The first is marked by a lyrical and romantic character, with complaints played muted, and pizzicati on the cello evoking the pinchy sounds of the balalaika and the domra, two traditional Russian instruments. These sonorities anchor this work in the Russian folk soundscape, so dear to the composer’s heart. As for the second movement, it presents a simple melody in the form of a nursery rhyme in two couplet/chorus sections, relayed by a melancholy cello song punctuated by sighs. Finally, the coda recalls the initial nursery rhyme, evoking childhood dreams.

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We hope you liked this Composer of the Month and that you will have a great time practicing these tunes! See you next month for another episode of Composer of the Month!

Disclaimer: all the scores provided in this article were found online and all listed as either Public Domain or Creative Commons and encouraged to be shared freely by their creators. If you want to learn more about the best online sources for legally getting sheet music, go ahead and read this article. Also, if despite our best effort to respect the will of the original creators, you are one of these creators and disagree with our use of your work, please contact us.

Listen to this playlist while you read the article to put you in the right mood!