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Sergei Rachmaninov

1873 - 1943

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1 April [O.S. 20 March] 1873 – 28 March 1943) was a Russian pianist, composer, and conductor of the late-Romantic period, some of whose works are among the most popular in the classical repertoire. He is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century.

(b. Semyonovo, April 1, 1873; d. Beverly Hills, March 28, 1943)


Although he was one of the most capable pianists in history and certainly among the foremost virtuosos of his own era, he thought of himself primarily as a composer. He was a transitional figure between Romanticism and modernism, and can fairly be characterized as die last composer-virtuoso, the end of a line that stretched from Mozart and Beethoven through Chopin, Liszt, and Scriabin.

His music runs the emotional gamut from somber introspection and romantic yearning to triumph and celebration, and his brilliant concertos and solo works for the piano are more firmly entrenched in the concert repertoire than those of any other 20th-century figure.

Rachmaninov was born into an aristocratic, military, piano-playing family whose misfortunes required moves to St. Petersburg—where at nine he began study at its Conservatory—and a few years later to Moscow. By his late teens he had written his first works: the opera Aleko (completed in a mere three weeks as his final composition exam, it won the Moscow Conservatory’s gold medal), a piano concerto, and sets of songs and piano fantasy pieces, including the hugely popular Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3, No. 2.

Anguish followed this early acclaim. The premiere of his First Symphony, in 1897 in St. Petersburg, was a disaster. A drunk Aleksandr Glazunov conducted, critics raked the piece over the coals, and the sensitive, relentlessly serious Rachmaninov had a nervous breakdown, becoming so severely depressed that he was unable to compose for three years. (The symphony was not published or performed again during the composer’s lifetime.) He remained functional enough to serve as conductor of the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company, and in 1899 he made his international debut as a pianist, at Queens Hall in London. But his artistic self-confidence was so shaken that eventually he sought psychotherapy, which included hypnosis.

The treatment had the desired effects, and by 1900 Rachmaninov began composition of his Piano Concerto No. 2 as well as the quasi-symphonic Suite No. 2, Op. 17, for two pianos. The concerto’s second and third movements were premiered in Moscow, and in 1901 Rachmaninov completed both it and the suite, dedicating the concerto to his therapist. The next year he married his first cousin Natalia Satina, who proved a rock of stability even though the marriage had been opposed by friends, family, and church because of their kinship.

The next decades were productive. The Ten Preludes, Op. 23, were finished in 1903, and the following year Rachmaninov signed a contract to conduct at the Bolshoi Theatre. While there he completed and premiered two operas (Francesca da Rimini and The Miserly Knight). In 1906 the family (a daughter had been born) moved to Dresden, where the composer worked on his Symphony No. 2, which he introduced in St. Petersburg in 1908; in 1907 a second daughter was born. The ensuing years in Dresden, with summers back in Russia, also saw completion of the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead and the Piano Concerto No. 3, the premiere of which he gave (with Mahler on the podium) in 1909 in New York. Outstanding works of this period include the choral symphony The Bells (1913), inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, and the glowingly beautiful All-Night Vigil (1915), a vespers setting for a cappella chorus.

Key Works

Rachmaninoff in front of a giant Redwood tree in California, 1919

Rachmaninoff with a piano score

Following the 1917 Revolution and the loss of his family’s estate and revenue, Rachmaninov left Russia and began a career as a touring concert pianist. He signed a contract with the Victor label, eventually recording his Piano Concerto No. 2 (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and other works through the 1920s. During the 1930s, he built a lakeside villa called Senar (an acronym for Sergey and Natalia Rachmaninov) outside Lucerne; composed perhaps his best-known work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, as well as his Symphony No. 3; and recorded most of his major works. He continued composing and recording into the early 1940s, when his health began to fail. He gave his final concert in 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee. Seriously ill (though unaware that the cause was cancer), he returned to Beverly Hills, where he died, days short of his 70th birthday, and just weeks after attaining American citizenship.

Rachmaninov’s keyboard technique was formidable and his compositions for the piano capitalize on it, exploring the instrument’s full range of dynamic and expressive effects. Invariably, there is a pronounced lyricism to his writing, sometimes tender in its expression, at other times grand and soaring. Underlying everything is a strength of sonority: No composer has ever drawn a more powerful sound from the piano. Rachmaninov’s own playing, well captured on phonograph recordings and piano rolls, shows awesome power and dexterity, steely fingers moving with dazzling velocity, the phrasing extraordinarily flexible yet without excessive rubato.

Piano Concerto No. 2, op.18

The endlessly flowing lyricism of Rachmaninov’s first and most enduring success the happy result of his confidence-building sessions with Dr Dahl - has inspired direct and indirect use in pop music and films.
Eight ominous piano chords introduce a sombre first theme, contrasted with the more optimistic second; a strident, martial short figure is repeated as a device to link the two.

An aching theme, sparsely woven between piano, solo winds and strings, flows with a gentle sadness that seems to have no relief in sight.

After a bustling start, two minutes or so in comes the nostalgic and sincere theme that brought Rachmaninov worldwide fame, played on oboe and violas and then taken up by piano. The theme reoccurs in more impassioned forms before the determined but unsettled finish.


Piano Concerto No.1, Op.1

00:00 - No. 1: Vivace 
12:20 - No. 2: Andante 
18:55 - No. 3: Allegro vivace 

Piano Concerto No. 3, in D minor, Op. 30

The whole of this tightly-structured piece comes out of the bare, twisting opening theme. Large in scale and emotional range, it shows Rachmaninov’s skill in writing long and beautifully phrased themes. It debuted in New York in 1909.

I. Allegro ma non tanto.....0:00
II. Intermezzo: Adagio....17:40
III. Finale: Alla breve.......28:09

Piano Concerto No. 4 op. 40 in G minor

00:00 1.Allegro Vivace
10:30 2.Largo
18:05 3.Allegro Vivace

Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 13 

I. Grave—Allegro ma non troppo (D minor)
II. Allegro animato (D minor) (13:02)
III. Larghetto (B♭ major) (20:45)
IV. Allegro con fuoco (D major) (29:38)

Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27

After the success of his Concerto No. 2, Rachmaninov produced this, possibly his greatest orchestral work, to complete his comeback after the disasters of his first attempt at a symphony. Most of his works were composed in his idyllic country estate, Ivanovka, but the spacious No. 2 came from his time in Dresden.

FIRST MOVEMENT (LARGO, 19:00) A low, sombre motto theme opens this broad movement. It turns into flowing and resolute, but tragic, long melodies, with sunnier sections and some impassioned climaxes.

A vigorous and bright movement, sparklingly orchestrated, containing a trademark yearning theme, and with an unexpectedly subdued finish.

THIRD MOVEMENT (ADAGIO, 14:00) Sumptuous, classic Rachmaninov, that goes straight into a long-breathed, poignant clarinet melody against quiedy intimate strings, and builds to some magnificently surging, almost triumphant, emotion with a tranquil finish.


A bustling and vivacious rounding-off of a remarkable work.

1 Largo - Allegro moderato
2 Allegro molto
3 Adagio
4 Allegro vivace

Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

I. Lento - Allegro moderato - Allegro (00:00)
II. Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro vivace (13:33)
III. Allegro - Allegro vivace - Allegro (Tempo primo) - Allegretto - Allegro vivace (26:49)

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

After his troubled Fourth Concerto had a lukewarm reception, this - his final concerto-style work - proved a great success. Based on Paganini’s familiar Caprice, it is a set of variations that ingeniously combines the lyrical with the brilliant, and spontaneity with organization.

Rachmaninoff at the piano (1936 or before)

Rachmaninov continues to be thought of as a throwback, a Romantic who was left at the station when the 20th Century Limited pulled out. In fact, as scores such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances (1940) show, he was a reluctant modernist, seeking to convey emotion, and perhaps a sense of nostalgia,

in an idiom that took into account a good many 20th-century trends in rhythm, harmony, and scoring. For no other reason than that his music has always been popular and is melodically generous, Rachmaninov has regularly been dismissed by critics and musical scholars as second-rate. It is an assessment that can no longer be defended.


Rachmaninov's music was considered outdated and : emotionally cliched after his death by some, and has had little influence on Western composers (though Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 2, for example, has a Rachmaninov-like slow movement). However, his reputation is now secure as the last of a great line.

The Bells, Op. 35

Allegro ma non tanto ('The Silver Sleigh Bells')
Lento ('The Mellow Wedding Bells')
Presto ('The Loud Alarum Bells')
Lento lugubre ('The Mournful Iron Bells')

Vespers (All-Night Vigil), for alto, tenor & chorus, Op. 37

1. O Come and Worship 
2. Praise the Lord, O My Soul (Greek Chant)
3. Blessed is the Man 
4. Joyful Light (Kiev Chant) 
5. Now Lettest Thou Depart (Kiev Chant) 
6. Hail Mary 
7. Hexapsalmos / O Praise Our God (Znamenny Chant) 
8. Blessed be the Lord (Znamenny Chant) 
9. Christ's Resurrection
10. My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord 
11. Greater Doxology (Znamenny Chant) 
12. This Day of Salvation (Troparion, Znamenny Chant) / Christ is Risen from the Dead (Troparion) / Thanksgiving to the Mother of God

Rachmaninoff's grave at Kensico Cemetery.

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