Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was born on 1 April 1873 in Oneg, near Semyonovo, Russia into a Russian family of musicians (Seroff ; Taruskin, 2018). This naturally landed him on the musical path and he learnt how to play the piano from his mother when he was 4 years old (Bauer, 2009, p. 169; Boosey ; Hawkes, 2018). Throughout his childhood, his family was dealing with financial challenges which inevitably resulted in them selling their family fortune (Teachout, 2002; Boosey ; Hawkes, 2018) Due to this, he was first enrolled in St Petersburg Conservatory (Bauer, 2009, p. 169; “Sergey Rachmaninoff”, 2018). His cousin, Siloti was a well-known composer and musician. Siloti was aware of Rachmaninoff’s musical capability and invited him to join Moscow Conservatory (Bauer, 2009, p. 169; Boosey & Hawkes, 2018). Rachmaninoff then became an alumnus of Moscow Conservatory after he graduated around 1891 (Counts, 2013). During his time there in 1888, he acquired a more proficient level of piano skills from Siloti and picked up composition skills from Taneyer and Arensky. In addition, he received advice from Tchaikovsky who was Siloti’s friend as well as former teacher (Boosey ; Hawkes, 2018). This could have sparked his admiration for Tchaikovsky resulting in his works being mostly influenced by Tchaikovsky’s style. (O’Connell, 2014) (Teachout, 2002). He was also awarded the Gold Medal upon his graduation for his Pushkin opera, Aleko (Seroff ; Taruskin, 2018; Boosey ; Hawkes, 2018).
About six years after his graduation in 1897, the debut of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D Minor was terribly executed and became a memory that Rachmaninoff himself did not want to remember, even though it should have been a successful milestone achieved. The conductor was under intoxication and critics maliciously bashed his work (Bauer, 2009, p. 169; Boosey & Hawkes, 2018). After the bad reception, his creativity was jeopardised and he found that he could not compose new work. This happened for the next three years and he “felt like a man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands” (Bertensson, Leyda & Satina, 2001, p. 76). He was also depressed and obtained help from Dr. Nikolai Dahl, known both as a doctor specialising in hypnotism and a psychiatrist (Maier, 2014; Seroff & Taruskin, 2018).
Following this unfortunate period in his life, he reached a peak with the success of his Second Piano Concerto in C Minor in 1901 (Seroff & Taruskin, 2018). In 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out and Rachmaninoff, together with his family, were forced to leave Russia. He expanded his music in the West specifically the United States where he and his family were located afterwards (Bauer, 2009, p. 169). He alternated between Switzerland and United States during this period. He felt lonely and homesick as he missed Russia and its people (Seroff & Taruskin, 2018). During the next 25 years of his life leading to his death, he did not compose many original works. There were only two of his works that were of quality which were Symphony No. 3 in A Minor and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Seroff & Taruskin, 2018). A few years before his inevitable death, he composed a final work titled Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 (Bauer, 2009, p. 169). He then died due to cancer on 28 March 1943 in Beverly Hills in California, United States (Seroff & Taruskin, 2018).
The Major Works of Rachmaninoff
• Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
The Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 is the most often played piece composed by Rachmaninoff (Boosey & Hawkes, 2018). This was dedicated to Dr. Dahl who helped him through a grim period in his life. This piece was purposely composed so that it catered to Rachmaninoff’s unusually huge hands, including long fingers. He was apt in playing this piece with extremely fast runs and chords full of power using his ambidexterity (Schwarm, 2018). The element of Russian Orthodox chants can be heard in the opening theme of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor (Teachout, 2002).
This piece is divided into three movements. The first movement, Moderato, consists of a brief piano introduction where the soloist is given the spotlight. The second movement, Adagio sostenuto, makes use of Romantic elements. It is even said that the last 15 measures of this movement are so moving that Sergei Taneeff cried when he heard them for the first time (Cannata 2004). The third movement, Allegro scherzando, is very dramatic. Rachmaninoff enjoyed ending his performances with a grand finale. In contrast to the first movement, the third movement focuses on the orchestra while the soloist really draws the attention of the audience using subtle melodies. The piano runs nearing the end speeds up in tempo with the orchestra matching it and the concerto ends (Cannata, 2004; Schwarm, 2018).
The variation between the three movements add depth and musical colour to the concerto, landing it as one of his major works.
• Isle of the Dead
The idea of this mesmerising piece came from the painting, The Isle of the Dead, done by Arnold Böcklin (Rodda, 2005). The painting depicts an island with teeth-like boulders and dark trees in the middle of it. A small boat containing an eerie tombstone is heading towards the island (Rodda, 2005). Rachmaninoff took inspiration from a black-and-white version of the painting for the composition of Isle of the Dead in 1909. He preferred the black-and-white version to the original that displayed muted colours using oil paint as the medium (Rodda, 2005). Isle of the Dead is one of his most expressive pieces, comprising of haunting melodies and crescendos found in it. It is noted that this piece is in a rather unusual 5/8 signature which accentuates the unsettling feeling the listener has when listening to it. This piece intertwines melancholy and solace which are two contradicting feelings (Rodda, 2005). This is difficult to achieve but Rachmaninoff was able to pull it off with utmost skill.
• Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43
This critical work was composed during the final years of Rachmaninoff’s life (“A Guide to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, 2017). Similar to his other works, Rachmaninoff took inspiration from other artistic or musical pieces. For the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op. 43, he gained inspiration from the Caprice No. 24, 24 caprices for solo violin, by Niccolò Paganini. Niccolò Paganini was a 19th century virtuoso violinist who inspired many works of Romanticism done by Liszt, Brahms and Rachmaninoff himself (“A Guide to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, 2017; Lunsford, 2017). Rahcmaninoff puts his own twist into his piece by composing this for a full orchestra (Lunsford, 2017). The structure of the first variation resembles the finale of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. The theme is presented using simple harmonies, with the first and fifth notes of the minor scales being mostly played. The few variations that follow this starts to gain complexity and dramatic music (Lunsford, 2017).