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Sergei Rachmaninoff: Biography, Music & Songs

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was a Russian pianist, conductor, and composer whose music was rediscovered in 1973--the 100th anniversary of his birth. Learn about his unusual career and become familiar with some of his important works.

Perseverance

We all face adversity at some point. The key is how we respond to those setbacks in life. Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff experienced a huge disappointment at age 24 with the failed premiere of his First Symphony. It was so poorly received that the experience destroyed his confidence, leaving him unable to compose for the next three years. Rachmaninoff was an excellent pianist and conductor, however, so he used those skills to make a living for awhile. But he longed to write music, so he eventually sought the help of a doctor who specialized in treatment by hypnosis. The treatment worked, and, with his confidence restored, he was able to compose what would be his most popular work, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor.

Sergei Rachmaninoff
Image of Rachmaninoff

Itinerant Musician

Rachmaninoff was no stranger to adversity. During his time as a young student at Saint Petersburg Conservatory, his parents separated. As his studies progressed, his mother enrolled him in the Moscow Conservatory. Although he was studying piano, he became interested in composition. In 1891, he graduated with honors in piano and completed his First Piano Concerto. He studied an additional year to earn a diploma in composition and produced the opera Aleko, which was an immediate success. He wrote several other works over the next few years which were also well-received, but the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897 was a crushing blow.

Political unrest in Russia eventually led Rachmaninoff to move to Dresden, Germany. This new location provided good working conditions and he was inspired to compose several major works in rapid succession: the Second Symphony, the First Piano Sonata, the Third Piano Concerto, a collection of Russian folk songs, and a symphonic poem called The Isle of the Dead.

Soon after, in 1909, he began touring, which brought him to the United States. He continued composing and produced two important choral works: a cantata called The Bells and a mass called Vespers. He continued touring and eventually built a home in Lucerne, Switzerland.

Dies Irae

Although he was not religious, Rachmaninoff was familiar with Latin church chants and old Russian Orthodox chants. He wrote several sacred pieces but his last and greatest liturgical work was the Vespers written in 1915. This piece quotes several Latin and Russian Orthodox chants.

The Latin chant 'Dies Irae' ('Day of Wrath') comes from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. This ancient music haunted Rachmaninoff for years and quotes of this melody can be found in several of his works, namely the Second Symphony and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Dies Irae
Dies Irae chant image

Later Years

Between 1918 and 1939, Rachmaninoff toured mostly in the United States and Europe performing as a pianist and premiering his compositions, including his Fourth Piano Concerto, Second Piano Sonata, Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and his Third Symphony.

With the outbreak of World War II, Rachmaninoff moved to the United States, where he composed his last major work Symphonic Dances. He continued touring and recording, and died of cancer four days before his 70th birthday. Ironically, he had just been granted American citizenship only a few weeks earlier.

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