Happy birthday Sergei Rachmaninoff!

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873 – 28 March 1943) was a Russian pianist, composer, and conductor. He is known as Russia's last great romantic composer. Part of the Russian bourgeoisie, he left Russia at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution. Once in the United States, he spent much of his time in the company of other Russians. His work was largely influenced by Russians, including Tchaikovsky and Rimsy-Korsakov. He is known for his virtuosic compositions which made use of his talent for performance.

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Rachmaninoff came from an aristocratic family, which had been in the service of Tsars in the past. Though the family received large dowries, Rachmaninoff's father, known as a "a wastrel, a compulsive gambler, a pathological liar, and a skirt chaser" squandered all of the family's wealth. Rachmaninoff's grandfather brought a piano instructor from Saint Petersburg to teach him when he was just five. By the time he was ten, he was attending the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He also studied at the Moscow Conservatory. As he grew up, he was greatly influenced by his sister's involvement with the Bolshoi Theater, though she died at the age of eighteen of pernicious anemia.

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Between the ages of 25 to 27, Rachmaninoff suffered from severe depression and experienced a nervous breakdown, said to be the result of self-doubt after a flubbed premiere of his Symphony No. 1. At 29, he married his first cousin, Natalya Satina, in spite of opposition from the Orthodox Church.

After seeking medical help for his mental health, he composed his Second Piano Concerto, and this solidified his lyrical and emotional style. Rachmaninoff eventually also became known for his use of broad bell-like sounds, created by exceptionally widely-spaced chords. He is known for having very large hands, which perhaps contributed to his tendency for wide reaches. His work also experimented with structure: his Third Piano Concerto made use of rhythmic fragments to create a sense of distilled moods.

He was hugely influenced by Tchaikovsky and his sudden death in 1893 made a strong impression on Rachmaninoff; he started composing his second "Trio élégiaque" almost immediately following, and it was characterized by an overwhelming melancholy.

Rachmaninoff spent periods in Paris, Dresden, and Switzerland after the Bolshevik Revolution, but he spent the majority of his life in the United States. He composed his best known work, "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," while spending time in his villa on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Wherever he was, he surrounded himself with Russian company and customs.

Rachmaninoff met the pianist Vladimir Horowitz at Steinway Hall in New York in 1928. Horowitz was thrilled when he heard that Rachmaninoff wanted to accompany him as he played Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto and said, "the musical God of my youth ... To think that this great man should accompany me in his own Third Concerto ... This was the most unforgettable impression of my life! This was my real debut!" They went on to become great friends and mutual admirers.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff with daughter Irina at Ivanovka, 1913

During his life Rachmaninoff composed three operas, four piano concertos, three symphonies, one choral symphony, and many other works. He also spent much of his career conducting. He was diagnosed with advanced melanoma in the fall of 1942 during a concert tour and died shortly after, in the spring of 1943.

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  • Birthday Date: Tuesday, 01 April 2014
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