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Prominent Russians: Sergey Rachmaninov

April 1, 1873 - March 28, March 1943

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"I write the music which I hear playing inside me... I am a Russian composer, therefore my temperament, outlook and music are quintessentially Russian..." - Rachmaninov

Sergey Rachmaninov is widely regarded as one of the greatest 20th century composers and pianists. He left behind a large number of piano concertos, etudes, sonatas, variations and, of course, his world-famous “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for piano and orchestra.

Rachmaninov was born on an estate at Oneg near the northwestern city of Novgorod into a noble and musical family of Tatar descent that had been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century. His parents were both amateur pianists, and he had his first piano lessons with his mother on their family estate. His mother pushed him to start playing the piano at age four. His grandfather had been a pupil of John Field. When Sergey was nine, financial difficulties forced the family to sell their estate and move to St. Petersburg, where Sergey took piano lessons at the Conservatory. But, the

Conservatory was not a great help to Rachmaninov because of a mix-up in his ability,

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and he did not learn much. His grandmother noticed this and exposed Sergey to church music, encouraging him to think of music as a pleasure. In 1888 Rachmaninov began to study piano with Siloti and composition with Sergey Taneyev and Anton Arensky. It should be noted that in his younger days Rachmaninov was found to be quite lazy, failing most of his classes and spending much time skating. But his teachers were absolutely amazed by his wonderful memory; he had only to look at sheet music once to be able to play a piece by heart.

In 1891 Rachmaninov graduated cum laude from the Moscow Conservatory and his name was later written in gold letters on a memorial plaque that still graces the conservatory's front wall. Even before his graduation as a pianist in 1891, Rachmaninov had composed what was to become his best-known work, the “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” With this work, written at the age of 19, Rachmaninov became famous almost overnight. The piano piece also established the general style and mood of his music: rather dark, melancholy, and brooding. His graduation as a composer came in 1892. He was awarded a gold medal for his Pushkin opera “Aleko,” the first of only three operas he ever wrote. Reminiscing about the composition of “Aleko,” Rachmaninov wrote: "The moment I was given the libretto for ‘Aleko’ I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me. I was afraid of losing even a minute… Burning with impatience, I felt already how the music for Pushkin's verses was rising and boiling over in me."

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The extraordinary musical gifts of Sergey Rachmaninov and the unique, multi-faceted talent of Feodor Chaliapin (famed for his abilities as an artist and sculptor as well as for his singing and acting) came together many times in both their personal and professional lives. Rachmaninov dedicated his vocal compositions to Chaliapin, accompanied the great singer and was one of the few conductors whose directions Chaliapin followed without demur. As a colleague and a friend, Rachmaninov exerted a great influence on Chaliapin's development as a musician. Reciprocally, Rachmaninov might never have created many of his best vocal compositions without the inspiration of Chaliapin's phenomenal singing. Chaliapin was the first to perform many of Rachmaninov's romances and in 1899 he gave a masterful performance in the title role of Rachmaninov's youthful one-act opera “Aleko,” which six years earlier had enjoyed a brilliant success upon its premiere at the Bolshoi Theater, winning the warm approval of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Chaliapin loved to perform with Rachmaninov, who accompanied the singer with particular joy, "enjoying his performance, supplementing it, accompanying him wonderfully. For several years in a row, Muscovites were able to enjoy the unique and unrepeatable concerts of these two artists appearing together and thrilling audiences with their incomparable performing," according to the composer's cousin Satina. At the turn of the century, on a January day in 1900, Chaliapin and Rachmaninov went together to visit Leo Tolstoy, where (though both reportedly were almost paralyzed by shyness) they performed several songs for him. In his book “Man and Mask,” Chaliapin recalled this period of their friendship:

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“Destiny threw me in the way of a great many remarkable men. My meeting with Sergey Rachmaninov dates back to the first stirring memories of my life in Moscow… A remarkable pianist, Rachmaninov is, with Toscanini, one of the best conductors I have ever heard. When Rachmaninov holds the baton, he inspires complete confidence in a singer. He interprets the very soul of a composition with the utmost delicacy, and if a pause or a suspended note is required, the singer may be sure that he will indicate them perfectly. When he is at the piano, I am not singing alone, we are both singing. As a composer, he is the personification of simplicity, clarity, and sincerity.”

It is hard to believe, but the premiere of Rachmaninov’s “First Symphony” in Moscow in 1897 was a disaster (the conductor, Aleksandr Glazunov, was drunk) and Rachmaninov destroyed the score (fortunately, a set of parts survived, which allowed the reconstruction of the work after Rachmaninov’s death). Rachmaninov fell into a deep depression. Unable to compose for nearly three years, the composer consulted Dr. Dahl, a pioneering Moscow hypnotherapist. Dahl succeeded in restoring Rachmaninov's self-confidence and the result was the most successful and much-loved “Piano Concerto No.2” in 1900 (dedicated to Dr. Dahl). Rachmaninov was always in demand wherever he performed.

Rachmaninov’s career established a pattern he was to follow throughout his life. There was always an uneasy struggle between performing and composing and Rachmaninov sometimes doubted himself. “I have chased three hares. Can I be certain that I have captured one?” he said in reference to his three musical roles: pianist, composer and conductor.

He became an international figure as early as 1899, when he conducted a concert of his orchestral works in London, playing some of his piano music as well.

Rachmaninov began his “Second Piano Concerto,” one of the most frequently performed of all works in the genre, in 1900, completing it the following year, when his “Cello Sonata” was also composed. The little-heard cantata “Spring” followed in 1902, the year in which he married his cousin Natalya Satina. Their daughter Irina was born in 1903. In 1904 Rachmaninov took up a conductor’s post at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, stimulating the completion of two further operas, “Francesca da Rimini” and “The Miserly Knight,” in 1906. The pressures of conducting at the Bolshoi persuaded the Rachmaninovs to spend some time away from the capital and they settled for a short while in Dresden, where Sergey worked on his “Second Symphony.” Rachmaninov himself conducted the premiere in St Petersburg in 1908.

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Rachmaninov was a man of many talents, always fascinated with everything new in art and other spheres of life. He was one of Russia's first motorists and, in his Ivanovka country estate near Tambov in central Russia, he delved into the art of farming, trying to make life easier for the peasants. He even invented a simple albeit effective grass-mowing machine. Living amid the vast Russian valleys and meadows, he draw inspiration for his famous “Piano Concerto N.3 in D Minor,” a assortment of romances and other compositions.

The years up to the Russian Revolution were spent in an exhausting whirl of playing and conducting. Together with his family he lived on his country estate at Ivanovka. The works that emerged during this period also include the symphonic poem “The Isle of the Dead,” the choral symphony “The Bells,” and two a cappella choral works, “The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom” and “The Vespers.”

After the October Revolution of 1917 Rachmaninov determined that he and his family would have to leave the country and he accepted an invitation to perform in Stockholm. The composer, his wife and their two daughters left Russia in December. Rachmaninov was never to return. They stayed briefly in Stockholm and Copenhagen, sailing to America in November 1918. Here, his concert work increased, reducing his time for composition. Rachmaninov also began a career in the studio, producing recordings that eighty-odd years later are still regarded as some of the most valuable interpretations of his own and others’ music ever committed to disc.

Rachmaninov sought to recreate the peace he had found at Ivanovka by building a villa on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, far from the insistent pressures of the international concert circuit. Here he wrote “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” and the “Third Symphony” which, in 1939, he recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which maintained a long association with his music. Rachmaninov closely followed everything that was happening back in the Soviet Union. During World War Two he contributed to the Soviet Embassy the proceeds of some of his concerts, accompanying the considerable sum of money with a note that read as follows: "From a Russian as a contribution in the ongoing struggle with the enemy. I want to believe and I do believe that the final victory will be ours."

Rachmaninov was a very fine composer of church music and was an expert on Old Russian religious chants. A detailed catalogue of his works includes two the major church compositions, “Versper Mass for Boys' and Men's Voices” and “Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for Mixed Choirs.”

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Sergey Rachmaninov was a tall man and always had to lower his head a bit whenever he entered a room. His voice was a bit hushed and low and his hands were big but very soft and tender. He moved around quietly, without haste and he never, ever raised his voice. He had regular features, a wide, protruding forehead, an elongated and a bit crooked nose and a pair of deep, shining eyes. His face changed dramatically, however, when he laughed and his laugh was expressive and sincere. Fellow Russian composer Igor Stravinsky later described Rachmaninov as a "six and half foot scowl." Indeed, Rachmaninov was very tall, and in public, at any rate, he did maintain a somewhat severe and inscrutable expression. Privately, however, he showed a completely different side of his nature. Those who knew him well remarked on his hearty laugh, infectious sense of humor and his fondness for good food and wine. A devoted husband and father, he had a great zest for life. He was one of the first people in Russia to own and drive a car. Later, after he left Russia, he bought a motorboat, which he drove at high speeds on a lake close to his Swiss home (warning his friends not to tell his wife!). In his memoirs, the famous sculptor Sergei Konenkov provides an illuminating description of the great composer: "Rachmaninov's face was a sculptor's dream. It was so simple and, at the same time, so absolutely unique and inimitable... There are faces in our life that you just see once and never forget as long as you live..."

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The great musician's looks have rubbed off on his grandson Aleksandr, the son of his younger daughter Tatyana, the man who inherited Rachmaninov's personal archives, handwritten music and letters. A permanent resident of Switzerland, Aleksandr Rachmaninov-Conus often comes to Russia where he helps organize various music contests bearing the name of his outstanding grandfather. “And this is the best politics you can think of, because you can shake so many hands and make so many new friends in high places. It's good politics. We have set up an international Rachmaninov association and we hold festivals each year, in Lucerne, Berlin, Paris, London, New York... And, of course, in Moscow. Festivals, contests, concerts... More and more people in Russia are now waking up to the legacy left behind by one of this country's greatest musicians,” according to Rachmaninov-Conus.

A superb pianist, Sergey Rachmaninov wrote brilliantly for both the piano and orchestra. Part of Rachmaninov's fame and brilliance as a pianist can be attributed to his unusually large hands, with their very long fingers and thumbs. He could stretch his hands and fingers further across the keyboard than practically any other pianist. Much of his own piano music, known for its big chords and rapid, glittering runs up and down the keyboard, echoes this unique physical ability. All these qualities of style, mood and technical mastery combined to make Rachmaninov one of the most popular among the great composers.

His last large-scale masterpiece was the “Symphonic Dances,” composed in 1940. At the time of his last recital, on 17 February 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was already gravely ill. Rachmaninov died on 28 March 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 this was not the case, he replied: "Then it is in my head."

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva for RT

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