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Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Rachmaninoff was the scion of an old aristocratic family.  His father, however, squandered most of the family fortune.  Rachmaninoff studied at the Moscow conservatory, where his teachers included Anton Rubinstein, Taneyev, Arensky, Safonov, and later, Tchaikovsky, who became his greatest early influence. Rachmaninoff graduated a year early at 19 with the Great Gold Medal, the highest possible honor.  The opera Aleko served as his graduation project.

 

Aleko was premiered in 1893 at the Bolshoi, and was warmly received by both the public and the press.  Inspired by its success, Rachmaninoff began to compose with speed and facility.  He completed several orchestral pieces during the summer of that year, including Утёс (The Rock) and the song sets designated as Op. 4 and Op. 8. These early compositions include some of his most popular romances: Oh never Sing to me Again, The Harvest of Sorrow, In the Silence of the Night. 

 

Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony had a disastrous premiere in Saint Petersburg in 1897.  Its failure was due in large part to Alexander Glazunov’s less-than-adequate conducting (he was reportedly drunk at the time).  The critical response was devastating—Cui compared it to “a program piece on the ten plagues of Egypt.”  Rachmaninoff was devastated by the symphony’s reception.  The composer did not produce any significant compositions for three years.  He sought the help of a well-known psychiatrist, Nikolai Dahl, who specialized in hypnosis, to help him overcome his emotional and creative crisis.

 

Scholars generally credit Rachmaninoff’s recovery of his creative powers by 1900 to Dahl’s treatment, and his Second Piano Concerto was performed in 1901 to great public and critical acclaim.  The following year, he composed the twelve songs of Op. 21, a set that included some of his finest vocal writing: The Fate, The Answer, The Lilacs, An Excerpt from Musset, How Fair this Spot is.

 

Rachmaninoff found solace on his estate of Ivanovka between frequent concert tours.  He composed many of his most important compositions there, including Thirteen Preludes Op. 32 (1910), a setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1910) and the Fourteen Songs Op. 34 (1910–12).  His finest sacred work, The All-Night Vigil, was composed and first performed in 1915.  By this time, Russia was mired in World War I, and the tsarist government began to disintegrate. Rachmaninoff composed the Six Songs, Op. 38 in 1916.  This set was his last composition in the genre of romance.  Rachmaninoff left Russia for good in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, never to return.  Tragically, his beloved estate of Ivanovka was razed by the revolutionaries.

 

The Rachmaninoffs spent many years in Scandinavia, Switzerland and France, eventually settling in Hollywood, California at the onset of World War II.  He suddenly became ill while on tour in 1943, and was diagnosed with cancer.  He gave his last concert in Knoxville, Tennessee, and died a month after returning to Los Angeles.  Rachmaninoff is buried in Valhalla, New York.

His songs remain popular all over the world, and are more well-known in the United States than those of any other Russian composer.  Their popularity is due partially to the fact that Rachmaninoff lived in the United States for many years.  His scores are readily available, and his songs have been featured in several books of translations, most prominently in The Singer’s Rachmaninoff by Natalia Challis.