Sergei Rachmaninov

Born: April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов), 1 April 1873 - 28 March 1943, was a composer, pianist, and conductor. ("Sergei Rachmaninoff" was the spelling the composer himself used- and Rachmaninoff is the last name his parents also used before the Soviet's russification efforts- including when he became a United States citizen. However, alternative transliterations of his name include Sergey or Serge, and Rachmaninov, Rakhmaninoff.) Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 in Semyonovo, near Novgorod, in north-western Russia. He was born into a noble family of Tatar descent, who had been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century. His parents were both amateur pianists.


Rachmaninov is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. He had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard (a hand span of approximately twelve inches). His large handspan roughly corresponded with his height; Rachmaninov was 6 feet 6 inches (1.98m) tall according to sources. He also had the ability to play complex compositions upon first hearing. Many recordings were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company recording label of Rachmaninov's performing his own music, as well as works from the standard repertory.


Rachmaninov made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909, an event for which he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30, 1909). This successful tour made him a popular figure in America. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, which meant the end of the old Russia, Rachmaninov and his family left for Stockholm in December of 1917, and never returned to the home country afterwards. They settled then in Denmark for a year, and finally started a 10 days voyage from Oslo to New York on November 1, 1918, which marked the beginning of the American period of the composer's life. After Rachmaninov's departure, his music was banned in the Soviet Union for several years. His compositional output slowed, partly because he was required to spend much of his time performing to support his family, but mainly because of homesickness; he felt that, when he left Russia, it was as if he had left behind his inspiration.


The falloff in Rachmaninov's output was dramatic. Between 1892 and 1917 (mainly living in Russia), Rachmaninov wrote 39 compositions with opus numbers. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, mainly living in the U.S., he completed only six. As the years went on, and he became more and more aware of the fact that he would never again return to his beloved homeland, he was overwhelmed with melancholia. Most people who knew him later in life described him as the saddest man they had ever known. Nevertheless, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, today one of his best-known works, was written in Switzerland in 1934.


He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 44, 1935–36) and the Symphonic Dances (Op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. He fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942, and was subsequently diagnosed with advanced melanoma (skin cancer).


Rachmaninov and his wife became American citizens on 1 February 1943. His last recital, given on 17 February, 1943 at the University of Tennessee Alumni Gymnasium, prophetically featured Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor which contains the famous funeral march. A statue commemorating Rachmaninov's last concert stands in the World's Fair Park in Knoxville, TN. Rachmaninov died on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, just a few days before his 70th birthday, and was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. In the final hours of his life, he insisted he could hear music playing somewhere nearby. After being repeatedly assured that was not the case, he said: "Then it is in my head".


After his death, the popularity of Rachmaninov's works among both musicians and audiences has increased since the second half of the twentieth century, with some of his symphonies and other orchestral works, songs and choral music recognized as masterpieces alongside the more familiar piano works.

Works Summary

His compositions include, among others, four piano concerti, three symphonies, two piano sonatas, three operas, a choral symphony (The Bells, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), the All-Night Vigil for unaccompanied choir (often known as Rachmaninov's Vespers), the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, 24 Preludes (including the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor), 17 Etudes-tableaux, Symphonic Dances and many songs, of which the most famous is the wordless Vocalise. Most of his pieces are in a melancholy, late Romantic style akin to Tchaikovsky, although strong influences of Chopin and Liszt are apparent. Further inspiration included the music of Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Medtner (whom he considered the greatest contemporary composer and who, according to Schoenberg's Lives, returned the compliment by imitating him) and Henselt.


Featured Works on the Dalton Wednesday Series

Suite No. 2 (9/14 concert)