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Classical Composers A-Z: Serge Vassilyevitch Rachmaninov

Peter Wintersgill tells us something of the life of the prolific and popular Russian composer Serge
Vassilyevitch Rachmaninov.

1st April, 1873, in Oneg, Novgorod, near St. Petersburg

Vasily, ex-army officer turned landowner, gambler and womaniser.

Lubov, wealthy general's daughter, very musical.

Maternal grandmother brought him up, very loving and affectionate.

Started piano lessons at age four, very precocious in musical ability. Passed scholarship to St. Petersburg Conservatoire aged nine; parents separated about this time, divorce being unthinkable. He and mother took a flat in St. Petersburg.

He moved to the Moscow Conservatoire on the advice of a cousin, when aged 12, where his teacher, Sverov, was a bad-tempered man, but worked very hard with his more able pupils, who lived at his home. He soon started composing simple piano and orchestral works. Tchaikowsky was among the visitors and heard him play one day. As a result he asked him to arrange his Manfred Symphony for two pianos, which he did.

He was ill in bed for three months aged 16; the distinguished specialist diagnosed "brain fever", which may have been some form of encephalitis.

He started his First piano concerto in 1890, aged 17, finishing it the next year, followed in 1892 by the well known Prelude in C Sharp Minor. The next year he wrote his first opera Aleko, which was greatly praised by Tchaikovsky; it was part of a competition, and as a result he was awarded a gold medal.

Early Adult Life
He had an affair with a young married woman named Anna, to whom he dedicated his First Symphony; this had its premiere in 1895, which was a complete failure.

He met Tolstoy in 1897, who impressed him very much; he gave him much sound fatherly advice on the topic of how to run your life.

In 1898 he had a successful season conducting in London; among other things he played his C Sharp minor Prelude, which has been popular in this country ever since, and conducted his orchestral piece The Rock.

In 1902 he married his cousin Natalie Satin; cousin marriages were frowned upon by the Orthodox Church, so he had to get special permission from the Czar.

After the failure of his First Symphony he became increasingly depressed and eventually consulted a psychiatrist, a Dr. Dahl, who treated him with hypnosis; this was so successful that he dedicated his next work to him, the well known Second Piano Concerto (1900). He and his wife settled in a flat in Moscow, where they started a long and happy married life; they had two daughters, both of whom eventually married and presented them with one grandchild apiece.

In 1905 he was appointed conductor of the opera at the grand Imperial Theatre in Moscow, where he met Chaliapin, the great bass singer, who became a life long friend. He wrote two operas, The Misery Knight and Francesca da Rimini, and refusedthe offer of the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The next year he moved to Dresden, where he started his Second Symphony the premiere of which he conducted in 1908 in St. Petersburg; he conducted it again in Leeds in 1910. In 1909 he wrote his Tone Poem, Isle of the Dead, and his choral work The Bells in 1913.

Later Adult Life
He went to the USA for the first time in 1909, where he played at the premiere of his Third Piano Concerto in New York, later touring the rest of the USA.

The music and worship of the Orthodox Church meant a lot to him, he himself contributing a Vesper Mass and The Liturgy of St. John.

When the revolution started in 1917, he left Russia for good, together with his wife and family; after short stays in Denmark and Sweden, he continued on to New York, where he settled. For the rest of his life he was to divide his time between America and Switzerland, where he bought a house at Lake Lucerne.

He now determined to concentrate on being a concert pianist, and toured the capitals of Europe in 1928; about this time he made several recordings of his own works, but never made broadcasts, saying, probably quite rightly, that it wouldn't do his music justice. In 1914 he started his Fourth Piano Concerto, but didn't finish it till 1926; it has never been a success.

After this he wrote a letter to the papers, criticising the Soviet regime; as a result his music was banned in the U.S.S.R.

His greatest late work was the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini (1934), which was followed in 1936 by the Third Symphony. In 1938 he played at the Henry Wood Jubilee Concert.

When war came in 1939 he returned to the USA and wrote his Symphonic Dances the next year. He also wrote a few songs which are rather neglected. He made a prolonged tour of the USA in 1942/43, which he found very tiring.

He finally died on 28th March, 1943, at Beverly Hills, California aged 70, of cancer.


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