Sergei Rachmaninov was not only one of the greatest pianists of
the twentieth century, but also the last great representative of
the Russian Romantic tradition, exemplified especially by
Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.
Originally wealthy, Rachmaninov's family was reduced to
straitened circumstances by his father's extravagance, the
resulting strain eventually leading to his parents' separation. In
1885, after an initial period of study at the St Petersburg
Conservatoire, Rachmaninov was sent to study the piano with the
strict teacher Nikolai Zverev, whose regimen required that the
boy's piano practice begin every morning at six o'clock. Living at
Zverev's also gave the young Rachmaninov the opportunity to meet
such impressive musicians as Anton Rubinstein, Anton Arensky, and,
most crucially, Tchaikovsky, at Sunday afternoon gatherings.
In 1888 Rachmaninov started taking composition lessons with
Taneyev and Arensky, and the increasing importance to him of
composing led to a breach with the piano-oriented Zverev. Before
his graduation he wrote such successful works as the warmly emotional
First piano concerto,
the Trio elegiaque No. 1 and the very Russian,
Tchaikovsky-influenced one-act opera Aleko — his graduation
exercise — for which he was awarded the highest mark possible.
Rachmaninov seemed to be about to launch on an assured career,
and in 1892 he wrote one of his most popular pieces, the Prelude in С
sharp minor, the performance
of which as an encore was to become a resented chore for the
composer. But five years later the premiere of his ambitious
First symphony was a disaster, possibly because of the
inadequacies of Glazunov's conducting, and Rachmaninov sank into
three years of compositional inactivity. His depression was
eventually cured by treatment under hypnosis, and the result of
Rachmaninov's rediscovered confidence was the immediately
successful and endurmgly popular Second piano concerto. The
momentum and excitement engendered by the build-up to the finale's
ecstatic climax in this work became a model for the conclusions of
Rachmaninov's subsequent pieces.
The next 15 years were highly productive, and saw such
large-scale fruits of his maturity as the Second symphony
(1906—7), the Third piano concerto in 1909, and in 1913
The bells, a choral symphony based on a poem by Edgar Allan Рое. Rachmaninov again abandoned
composition, however, when he and his family left Russia for the
United States following the revolution in 1917, and the
necessities of supporting a household forced him into a career as
an international concert pianist.
When Rachmaninov returned to composition in 1926 with the
Fourth piano concerto, its negative critical reception
suggested he may have lost his flair. But in the 1930s he
recaptured former glories with the Variations on a theme of
Corelli (his last solo piano work); the Rhapsody on a theme
of Paganini, for piano and orchestra, in which he achieved a
new leanness and concision of expression; and the Third
symphony, completed in 1936.
His last work, completed three years before his death from
cancer in March 1943, was the Symphonic dances, which not
only shows his interest in instrumental sonorities — illustrated
by the use of an alto saxophone — but also reaches back to evoke
the beloved Russian Orthodox chants of his homeland.