I wrote this biography for a project from my piano teacher. I hope you enjoy, I had to be less detailed towards the end
Last of the Romantics
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born as Vasily and Lubov’s second son, in the Rachmaninoff estate of Oneg, on the 20th of March, 1873. His father, Vasily, was not perhaps following the meaning of Rachmany which translates to spendthrift. He was erratic in monetary issues, and spent large amounts on frivolous and wild pursuits. Soon, the family fortune he inherited from his military forefathers was depleted, and slowly he was forced to sell off four of his five estates. Oneg, the childhood home of Sergei and his two brothers (Arkady followed later in the decade) was a happy place. Vasily seemed to have shelved his errant ways, and the family lived comfortably until the end of the decade.
Lubov Rachmaninoff was certainly musically inclined. When she wished to punish her children, she would send them to sit beneath the piano. From the start, Sergei showed an inclination toward music, and his mother, a decent pianist, encouraged this. At the age of six, the family hired Anna Ornatskaya to teach piano to Sergei. Anna was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Rachmaninoff would later excel.
No matter how peaceful the life at Oneg may have been, beyond the bounds of the estate the world was trouble. Tsar Alexander II declared war on Turkey in 1877, and the Russian nationalist movement forced Germany to join Austria, in unfortunate resistance to Russia. If the enemies outside of Russia were not enough, trouble was brewing inside of the mother country herself. A revolutionary society styling itself the Land of Liberty surreptitiously issued a death warrant for Alexander II, and the Tsar survived no less than four attempts on his life in the next year. However, soon after his Silver Jubilee as Tsar, he was killed by a Guerilla unit from the Land of Liberty. Just that day, he had signed a decree for a democratic, citizen elected parliament.
The times were now unhappy for the Rachmaninoffs as well. Vasily had splurged once more, and it became all to apparent that Oneg would have to be sold. Soon, the family was forced to move to St. Petersburg, and rent a small flat in the city. Sergei’s teacher Anna wrote a recommendation for Sergei to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Sergei now lived with his Aunt for some months. However, just after the family settled into the flat, a diphtheria epidemic struck the city. Sergei, his elder brother Vladimir and his second-eldest sister Sophia were affected, but only the boys recovered. Sophia died. This proved too much for Lubov. In her eyes, no one was responsible more than Vasily. Because of his recklessness, the Rachmaninoff name had gone from wealth to neat poverty in less than twenty years. Had they remained at Oneg, the family would be safe and healthy and intact. Unable to bear the shame, Vasily left the family, and would never see Lubov again.
Now Lubov showed her strength of heart. Though she had virtually no money, her children’s education was secure through public funds and Sergei’s scholarship. With no other option, she turned to her mother Madame Boutakova. She happily responded, traveling frequently from her home in Novgorod. Sergei was her favorite grandchild, and she bought a small farm (near Novgorod) where the family could safely stay, enjoying time and leisure similar to Oneg.
Now, Tsar Alexander III took the throne, in a very different manner than his predecessor. No longer could the nation continue along the path of reformation that Alexander II had promoted. One example of this was the diktat, which confined the Jews into fifteen select provinces, though many chose simply to leave. The revolutionaries were hunted down, and so repressed. Liszt was known to be giving lessons at this time, but Sergei never learned under him.
Without a father in his life, young Sergei found that he had a rather pleasant freedom. Sergei now used the 10 kopecks that was intended for his fare to the Conservatory on trifling amusements, ice-skating, swimming, and the other entertainment popular with young boys. This continued for three years, in a cycle of truancy, entertainment in the city, and bucolic holidays at the Novgorod farm. He often went with his grandmother to the Orthodox Church services, where the choral singing and booming church bells made a great impression upon him, as is later demonstrated in his work.
On the rare occasion he did attend the Conservatory, his progress was rather quotidian, and his virtuosity lay dormant through his laziness. When report cards came, we was often able to forge his marks more favorably by adding a stroke the a “1" and turning it into a “4". However, he reached his ultimate low in the spring of 1885, when he was twelve, and was threatened with expulsion. This was disastrous to Lubov, because she new Sergei was wasting his considerable talent, and also that now she had to find another place of education. The answer came in the form of Alexander Siloti, who had returned from his studies with Liszt, and recommended the family to the stern disciplinarian of Nikolai Zverev.
In autumn of 1885, Sergei’s carefree youth was put to an end, and he was to move to Zverev’s house in Moscow. However, he was somewhat cheered by the fact that his seventeen year-old sister Elena would be studying with the St. Petersburg voice-trainer Ippolit Pryanishnikov, and later auditioned for the Bolshoi Opera.
Sadly, at the opening of what could have been a brilliant career as a contralto, Elena contracted pernicious anaemia, and died. She was only seventeen.
Heartbroken, Rachmaninoff now bid farewell to his grandmother, carefully guarding the hundred roubles she had sown into the lining of his grey jacket, and boarded the train to Moscow. His childhood finished, he now had to grow up, or fail in the world.
Upon arriving in Moscow, he met his Aunt Julia, for the first few days until he took up lodgings in Zverev’s home. When Sergei began to study with Zverev, he was 53, but apparently looked rather older. Sergei studied there with two other boys, all of whom could not afford education. Nikolai fed, taught, and maintained them for free. The three boys shared one grand piano, and were expected to practice three hours daily.
Zverev’s influence did not end there. He know that if they were to be successful pianists, they would need to be well versed in social graces. After they completed their primary lessons at the apartment, Zverev would make sure that they attended all the latest plays, concerts, operas, and occasionally the better restaurants. The pupils, so different from the children of this generation, enjoyed the social experiences. To them, it was a welcome respite from the rigors of the Zverev practice schedule. In addition to the ventures outside of the home, Zverev also entertained a varying client of guests, most importantly prominent musicians. The boys were sometimes invited to the dinners which Zverev held with the artists, and afterwards they would be required to play for the guests. This experience proved invaluable to the young pianists. They were given the chance to perform in a pleasant, unpressured atmosphere that they were familiar with.
It says much for Sergei’s strength of character that he could adapt quickly to this setting which was so radically different from anything he had experienced. Rachmaninoff was by no account a stupid person. He had a quick mind, and showed this through his superb memory, which helped him in the Conservatory later.
Zverev ensure an all around knowledge of music. For the first year, Sergei and the pupils studied only piano, often playing four-hand arrangements of chamber and orchestral music. Because Edison’s ‘talking machine’ was still in its infancy, this was the only was for the pupils to come to know the classics. Sergei’s innate composer’s instinct must certainly have arose during this time, as he learned the classics in depth. In the summer, Zverev took the pupils to Crimea to study harmony and theory under a fellow Conservatory colleague of Zverev’s.
Later in this summer, Rachmaninoff began his first attempt at composition, though it was actually a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. He later performed this for his hero (Tchaikovsky) but the work remains lost, and it is impossible to say whether Tchaikovsky was impressed by the work, though he certainly was by the musicianmanship of the now-thirteen-year-old boy.
“When we were alone, he called me to the piano and began to play. ‘Do you know what this is?’ he asked. ‘No ,’ I said, ‘I don’t’. ‘And how do you like this pedal point in the bass against the chromatic progression in the upper register?’. I nodded in satisfaction. ‘I composed it myself,’he said proudly ‘and I dedicate it to you’.”
~ Recollection of Mikhail Pressman.
During the next summer, they again went to Crimea. Mikhail Pressman recalls Sergei Rachmaninoff playing his first original composition, and dedicating it to Pressman. This one quote shows how much Rachmaninoff had progressed since the days of his boyhood.
On one visit, Sergei Taneyev, the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, listened to Zverev’s pupils play. The calmly went to the piano, and began to play a transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, without music. “Taneyev asked where the music was: according to Pressman he almost jumped from his chair. ‘They play by heart’, replied Zverev calmly, his eyes looking upwards. After the performance, Taneyev was still muttering, ‘...how is it possible?...to play by hear...’, Zverev ordered an encore: the scherzo from Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony.”
Now, Rachmaninoff’s composing truly beings. He wrote an orchestral “Scherzo in D minor” probably using Manfred as a base, and one short piano piece, which was lost, but he later rewrote it from memory. The 14 year-old composer now felt that he was ready for an ‘Opus 1' which consisted of Four Piano Pieces, and later Three Nocturnes for the piano. Rachmaninoff was now remarkably self-assured, and was growing admirably as both composer and pianist under the watchful eye of Zverev. At Easter, he was allowed to visit one of his Aunts, where he met a cousin named Natalia. Sergei, now a young man of fifteen, recognized a kindred spirit and joint musicianmanship. He returned to St. Petersburg, and enrolled in the class of Alexander Siloti, who had joined the Conservatory’s staff.
It became clear to the Conservatory professors that Rachmaninoff could truly be a great composer, and was allowed to join Taneyev’s counterpoint class. Rachmaninoff began plans for an opera, Esmerelda, based on Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. Famous Scriabin, Pressman, and Josef Lhevinne all were part of Rachmaninoff’s classes, and they formed firm friendships. Taneyev, the Conservatory’s director, was simply legendary in musical knowledge. He was a pupil of Tchaikovsky, but soon outstripped his master so that Tchaikovsky took lessons from Taneyev! This legend was whom the Composer was learning from.
Rachmaninoff yearned to compose, and this was heightened by his peers. Zverev new that Rachmaninoff was a virtuosi pianist, and he believed that diluting Rachmaninoff’s talent into composition was unacceptable. Rachmaninoff complained to Zverev that he could not compose while sharing a piano and room with two others, and Zverev took this as a personal insult. He ejected Rachmaninoff from his home, and took him to Rachmaninoff’s aunt. Zverev said it was impossible for Rachmaninoff to remain at Zverev’s apartment.
Rachmaninoff owed much of his skill to Zverev, but also that he gave Rachmaninoff invaluable experiences with the musicians of the time. It has been said that Rachmaninoff and Zverev show the same attitudes towards others, though Rachmaninoff was less controlling to his few pupils.
After the break, Rachmaninoff’s Aunt made space for him for several months. With the tranquility, he composed several pieces; Romances, Scherzo in D minor, and “At the Gate of the Holy Place”, among others. In the summer, Rachmaninoff traveled with his relative to their country estate and Ivanovka. Here, he lived for some time with the Silotis, Natalia, Ludmilla, and Vera. Rachmaninoff came to love this estate dearly, and it’s tranquil setting made a deep impression upon him. Whilst hearing his second symphony, you can just imagine him looking out upon the fields and rolling hills of Ivanovka.
It was at this time that he received his first commission for a piano-duet transcription. First, Alexander Siloti was approached to write it, but he refused, but referred them to Rachmaninoff, assuring that he would still supervise the work. It was a sensational offer for the composer. The piece, The Sleeping Beauty ballet was by his idol, Tchaikovsky.
Around this time in 1890, he also began sketches for a Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor. The relationship between Rachmaninoff and his mother was becoming strained. The burgeoning war caused food-rationing in Russia, and Lubov was looking towards Sergei to help her financially. His time in Moscow had changed Sergei, from the happy, carefree boy, to the serious young man that he had become.
Rachmaninoff, still studying at the Moscow conservatory with his friends, was now faced with a difficult choice. Relations between one of Rachmaninoff’s teachers, Siloti, and the new director, Safanoff, had become strained. Siloti quite, and this meant that Rachmaninoff would have to have a new teacher for his final year. So, with great verve, he asked Safonoff if he could take his final exam year early. This meant qualifying within one month. However, as I’ve said before, Rachmaninoff had a superb memory, and exquisite dedication and discipline.
“Rachmaninoff’s musical gifts, even apart from his creative ability, surpassed any others I have ever met, bordering on the marbellous, like those of Mozart in his youth. The speed with which he memorised new compositions was reemarkable. I rembmer how Siloti, with whom we were both studying at the time, told Rachmaninoff to lear the well known Brahms Vatiations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. This was a Wednesday, and it was but three days later that Rachmaninoff played them like a master. It was his prcatice to memorize everything he heard, no matter how complicated it was...
To pass, Rachmaninoff was required to learn the first movement of a Chopin Sonata and a complete Beethoven Sonata. On May 24th, he took the exam, and passed with honors. He required a vacation, but instead of visiting family in St. Petersburg, he went to Ivanovka, where he finished the Concerto. Afterwards, he had to finish the exams for the rest of his classes. He was required to submit one symphony, some vocal works, and an opera. This Opera was to be fashioned after Aleko, based on Puskin’s poem The Gypsies. However, Vasily Rachmaninoff came to Sergei for help, and he Sergei allowed him into his home. However, Vasily somewhat delayed Rachmaninoff in writing his opera because Vasily had taken over the room with piano to entertain some friends. Rachmaninoff impatiently waited, and when the room was clear, he sprang to the piano, an wrote Aleko in fifteen days. When presented, the examination committee was unanimous, Rachmaninoff was awarded the highest possible score, and Zverev himself was on the committee. He later took Rachmaninoff into the hallway, and congratulated him, giving Sergei his own gold watch an a token. Their friendship was restored.
Ten days later, Rachmaninoff was awarded the Gold Medal, and was given the title “Free Artist”. The Medal had only been awarded twice, and Rachmaninoff’s name was inscribed beneath that of Taneyev and Koreschenko. The nineteen year old’s days of learning, and he now embarked on his career with the highest recommendations.
Now, Rachmaninoff’s fame was growing. A publisher who dealt mainly in small, cheerful works, approached him, hoping to broaden his catalogue to more serious works. The publisher, Karl Gutheil eventually offered him 500 roubles for Aleko, the songs, and Two Pieces for cello and piano. This was a fortune to Rachmaninoff, who was only earning 15 a month from his single pupil. Gutheil was to remain Rachmaninoff’s publisher until 1914, when his firm was taken over. Soon, the Imperial Opera heard of Aleko and scheduled it to be performed in the upcoming season. This was wonderful news, but Rachmaninoff wrote to Natalia Skalon saying that it was unlikely that it would be a great success, as “first operas” usually fail.
Rachmaninoff now began working on a new opera, mainly the Libretto from a theme Tchaikovsky abandoned. After a brief bout with the fever, he composed a piano Prelude in C-sharp minor, which he played for the first time at an Electrical Exposition. Concert on September 20th in Moscow. Rachmaninoff considered this concert to be his debut as a concert pianist, and it is an interesting fate that he performed what was to be considered his trademark piece. This Prelude and four companion pieces were published as his Morceaux de Fantasie, Opus 3.
The year 1893 dawned bright and full of promise for the nineteen year-old composer. Gutheil took his Concerto and agreed to publish it, but actually only published the two-piano version, and was payed 200 roubles for his Opus 3. For the first time on April 27th, Rachmaninoff’s Aleko was performed in the Bolshoi. Vasily Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and members of his family were there. For Rachmaninoff, there could be no sweeter triumph.
Success coursing through his veins, he returned to Slonov, and composed his Opus 4, Piano Suite No. 1, and his Opus 6. He also began another Symphonic work, based on the short story “On the Road”. But tragedy soon struck. Nikolai Zverev was dead at the age of 61. Many musicians, including Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky attended the funeral. Rachmaninoff later showed the score of the Fantasie-Tableaux to Tchaikovsky, and obtained permission to dedicate it to him.
Rachmaninoff received an invitation to conduct Aleko in Kiev. He missed hearing Tchaikovsky conduct his Pathetique Symphony, because Sergei caught the train for Kiev on that day. It was just as well that Rachmaninoff left, because soon after a Cholera epidemic struck Moscow. Tchaikovsky strangely drank some unboiled water some days after Pathetiques’s premier, and died after a short illness. The entire musical world reeled, and Rachmaninoff himself soon began a second Trio Ele`giaque.
Rachmaninoff now wrote his first major symphony. The Symphony was to be conducted by Alexander Glazunov. In the time between the writing and the performance of the Symphony, Rachmaninoff also wrote his Six Moments Mistakes, a remarkable feat as he was quite distracted from the upcoming symphony. The Symphony is 45 minutes long, and rather more than Glazunov expected. For whatever reason, the premiere was a disaster, the work and anticipation of two years had come crashing down about his ears. Rachmaninoff knew he had written a masterpiece, and what truly crushed him was that it was mutilated by an atrocious conductor.
With the disastrous premiere behind him, Rachmaninoff now fell into a deep depression, which stemmed all compositions in his mind. He continued performing and conduct, but he did not work at composition. Perhaps the drive was no longer there. Soon, Rachmaninoff met with the great Leo Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. Tolstoy seemingly had no pity for Rachmaninoff’s plight, and told him simply “You must work. Do you think I am pleased with myself? Work. I must work every day.” This and subsequent visits only compounded Rachmaninoff’s problem, and he looked for one last option.
Since the publication of Sigmund Freud’s, psychiatry was rapidly spreading in Europe, and Rachmaninoff went to see Dr. Nikolai Dahl. Dahl’s treatment was simple, but effective. He waited until Rachmaninoff was half-asleep, then repeated phrases like “You will begin to write your new Concerto....you will work with great facility....the Concerto will be of excellent quality...”. Dr. Dahl was an amateur musician himself, and this proved a wonderful addition to the relation between composer and amateur, patient and doctor.
Rachmaninoff now wrote his Second Piano Concerto in C minor. He paid a special tribute to Dr. Dahl, by frequently using the viola,(Dahl’s favorite instrument)especially the finale. “In a word, the Concerto was inspired”. Rachmaninoff had already shown that he was capable of writing large scale works with great subtlety and care. He soon performed it as soloist, promptly composed his Second Piano Suite.
Rachmaninoff, now 29, announced that he was going to marry Natalia Satin. Due to complications with the Orthodox church, Sergei and Natalia were married in a garrison chapel. Rachmaninoff and Natalia soon were expecting their first child, and Rachmaninoff published his Op.23, which includes the famous no. 5 in G minor. Rachmaninoff’s first and second children were girls.
Rachmaninoff now composed his “Isle of the Dead”, based on a painting, and his Second Symphony. The Symphony plays for about one hour, and is utterly powerful and exuberant. It has great demands on both orchestra and conductor. It is a stunning, four movement work that is full of unique melodies and a particularly beautiful third movement, which remains one of music’s most beautiful melodies.
Trouble was brewing in Russia, and Rachmaninoff moved his family to America. Apart from 2,000 roubles and their hand-luggage, they had nothing. He was able to perform his Second Concerto, and other concertos of his own solo piano works, which provided money for living expenses. Additionally, we was offered three posts as a conductor, but turned them down. For his next touring season, he composed a new Concerto. The Rach 3, as it has come to be know, is one of the most technically difficult pieces commonly played. It also runs about an hour, before Rachmaninoff shortened it.
Soon after, Rachmaninoff began recording for RCA. He recorded many of his own works, but also Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin. However, towards 1943, his health began to fail. He said “I’m playing fewer concerts than the number I cancel. Right now, I have cancelled three concerts so I can go ‘direkt’ to California”. Rachmaninoff made a slow 60 hour journey by train from New Orleans to Beverly Hills, where an ambulance waited to take him to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan. Rachmaninoff was comforted by the news from the radio in his hospital room that the Axis powers were retreating, and Russia was advancing. Tests confirmed that Rachmaninoff was suffering from a rare and fast-spreading cancer. On March 26th, he passed into a coma. The next day, a telegram arrived signed by many Soviet composers congratulating him on his seventieth birthday, which was on April 2nd. Early in the morning, March 28th, 1943, the finale arrived.