The Last Great Russian Romantic

Sergei Rachmaninoff excelled as a composer, a pianist, and a conductor. Not only was he one of the most accomplished pianists of his time, but as a composer, he is considered the last great figure of late Russian Romanticism.

Rachmaninoff was born in 1873 to an aristocratic Russian family. His father and grandfather had served the czar in the military and expected Sergei to follow that tradition. When it became clear that the boy possessed an unusual gift for the piano, however, his parents found him a teacher. His talent was immediately apparent; he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at age 10.  Plans for a military career were dropped.

Sergei was one of six children raised by a strict but loving mother, a profligate father, and an indulgent maternal grandmother. It was his grandmother — his babushka — who often took him to Russian Orthodox church services, where he was entranced by the sounds of liturgical chants and church bells. Though he was never outwardly very religious, his love of church music never left him.

Church Bells and Chants Were an Early Influence

Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff’s father was a poor money manager. By the time the boy was 10, his father had squandered almost all the family’s substantial wealth. In 1883, his parents separated and Sergei was sent to live with an aunt.  Without his mother’s careful discipline, he soon was failing all school subjects except music. It was decided that the boy should be sent to live with Nikolai Zverev, a prominent pianist and teacher in Moscow.

In 1885, Rachmaninoff moved into Zverev’s house, to take piano lessons and attend the Moscow Conservatory. Zverev imposed strict discipline on his students but also introduced them to the city’s cultural life, taking them to concerts and theater productions. Prominent contemporary musicians like Anton Rubinstein and Rachmaninoff’s idol, Tchaikovsky, were often invited to hear Zverev’s young pupils play.

Rachmaninoff excelled at the conservatory. Taking classes in counterpoint and harmony, he soon discovered that he loved to compose. At age 16, he expressed his desire to become a composer. This led to a serious rift with Zverev, who insisted that the young man focus solely on piano performance. Zverev was so furious, in fact, that he refused to speak to Rachmaninoff, who was forced to leave Zverev’s home and move in with his relatives, the Satins.

Inspired in the Quiet Countryside

The Satin family welcomed him warmly. From then on, Rachmaninoff spent summers at the family’s spacious country estate, Ivanovka. These were some of the happiest times for the young man, who found the peace and quiet of the countryside conducive to composing. He wrote some of his finest music there, including his First Piano Concerto.

In 1892, for his final examination in composition, Rachmaninoff wrote an opera, Aleko, which was an immediate success. After hearing the piece, his old mentor, Zverev, embraced him, signaling an end to their feud. The examining board unanimously awarded him the “Great Gold Medal,” the Moscow Conservatory’s highest honor.

Devastated and Unable to Compose For Three Year

After graduation, Rachmaninoff signed a publishing contract and soon composed what was to become his best-known composition, the Piano Prelude in C Minor, a work to which he owed much of his early popularity. (Later, he complained that he found his audiences’ insistent demands that he play the piece at his concerts quite tiresome!)

Rachmaninoff’s musical career had begun, but the golden glow of his school accomplishments soon faded. He struggled to make ends meet, teaching music at several girls’ schools and composing whenever he could. His first symphony, premiered in 1897, was not well received. He was so devastated by its poor reception that he was unable to compose anything for three years. Instead, he turned to a new career — conducting, securing a post at a private opera company.

Rachamninoff in the 1910sWhile he continued to gain fame as a pianist and conductor in Russia and, after his debut with the London Philharmonic Society in 1899, in the rest of Europe as well, he was often depressed in these years. He finally broke through his “composer’s block” with the help of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who reportedly hypnotized him to improve his health. Whether because of Dahl’s techniques or simply because of the warm friendship that arose between the two men, Rachmaninoff began to regain his confidence. He soon started work on his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dr. Dahl. It was premiered to great acclaim at the Moscow Philharmonic Society in 1900, with Rachmaninoff at the piano.

In 1902, Rachmaninoff married his cousin, Natalia Satina. He settled into domestic life, while continuing to compose and to tour as a concert pianist. He enthusiastically took over the management of Ivanovka, his wife’s family estate. As always, he found the peace and quiet of the countryside inspiring. Unfortunately, the peace he had found was not to last long.

The Revolution Destroys Rachmaninoff’s Rural Refuge

In 1914, war broke out in Europe. Rachmaninoff gave numerous benefit concerts for war relief and to support the Russian troops. Then, only a few years later, the Bolshevik Revolution forced Sergei, Natalia, and their two daughters to flee Russia, leaving behind everything — home, friends and worldly goods. Rachmaninoff’s beloved Ivanovka was utterly destroyed in the revolution.

The family traveled first to Europe, then in November 1918, settled in the United States. Although he would have preferred to spend most of his time composing, Rachmaninoff soon realized that the easiest way to make a living was as a concert pianist. In 1921 the Rachmaninoffs bought a house in New York City, where they consciously re-created the atmosphere of Ivanovka, entertaining Russian guests and observing Russian customs.

Rachmaninoff and Horowitz Form A Lasting Bond

In the following decades, Rachmaninoff continued to tour as a concert pianist, composing far less than he wanted to. In 1928, he met Vladimir Horowitz and the two men, both of whom had lost everything in the revolution, formed a bond and remained friends for the rest of their lives. They often performed together; in particular, Horowitz was celebrated for his interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto.

Though he had found a new home in America, Rachmaninoff never stopped longing for the Russia he had been forced to leave. He was always homesick for his beloved Ivanovka. He died of cancer in Beverly Hills just short of his 70th birthday.

— by Nina Anne Geeley