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Sergei Rachmaninoff

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Rachmaninoff, from a   advertisement
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Rachmaninoff, from a 1921 Victor advertisement

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873March 28, 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. (Alternative spellings for his name include Sergey or Serge and Rachmaninov, Rachmaninow or Rakhmaninov, all transliterations of Сергей Рахманинов, his name in Cyrillic. "Sergei Rachmaninoff" was the spelling Rachmaninoff himself used while living in the West.)

While his reputation as composer only came later in life, Rachmaninoff's skill as pianist was well-known and highly respected; he often performed his own works as soloist. He was one of the greatest pianists of his generation, having legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover a an interval of twelfth on the piano. Many recordings were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company recording label of him performing own music as well as works from the standard repertoire.

His compositions include, among others, four piano concertos, three symphonies, two piano sonatas, a choral symphony (The Bells, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), a setting of the Vespers and many songs. Most of his pieces are in a late Romantic style akin to Tchaikovsky, although strong influences of Chopin and Liszt are apparent. Further inspiration included the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Medtner and von Henselt.

Contents

Youth

Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, near Novgorod in north-western Russia, into a wealthy family of Tatar background and a strong military tradition. His parents were both amateur pianists, and he had his first piano lessons with his mother on their family estate at Oneg; however, his parents noticed no outstanding talent in the youngster. Because of financial difficulties, the family moved to Saint Petersburg where Rachmaninoff studied at the Conservatory there, before moving to Moscow. There, he studied piano under Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti, the latter being a student of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff's cousin. He also studied harmony under Anton Arensky, and counterpoint under Sergei Taneyev.

Already in his early years he showed great skill in composition: While still a student, he wrote the one-act opera, Aleko, and a set of piano pieces, Morceaux de Fantaisies (op. 3, 1892), including the popular and famous Prelude in C-sharp minor — after 40 years of performing it as an encore at his piano recitals due to popular demand, he came to detest the piece. Rachmaninoff confided in Zverev his desire to compose more, requesting a private room where he could compose in silence, but Zverev saw him only as a pianist and severed his links with the boy. After the success of Aleko, however, Zverev welcomed him back as a composer and pianist. His first serious pieces for the piano were composed and performed as a student at the age of thirteen during his residence with Zverev. In 1892, at nineteen, he completed his Piano Concerto No. 1 (op. 1, 1891), which he revised in 1917.

Initial setbacks

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 (op. 13, 1896) premiered in 1897, but was torn apart by critics. Some have suggested that this was largely due to the conducting of Alexander Glazunov, who disliked the piece and under-rehearsed it; Rachmaninoff's wife later suggested that Glazunov may have been drunk. This disastrous reception, coupled with his distress over the Eastern Orthodox Church's objection to him marrying his cousin, Natalia Satina, led to a nervous breakdown.

He wrote little music over following years, until he began a course of autosuggestive therapy with psychologist Nikolai Dahl, an amateur musician himself. Rachmaninoff quickly recovered his confidence; an important result of these sessions was the composition of the Piano Concerto No. 2 (op. 18, 190001), which was dedicated to Dr. Dahl. The piece was very well received at its premiere which Rachmaninoff was soloist, and remains one of his most popular compositions. It has been used in the soundtrack to the films Brief Encounter and The Seven Year Itch, as well as having its themes made into popular songs in the 1940s.

Rachmaninoff's spirits were further bolstered when, after years of engagement, he was finally allowed to marry Natalia. They were married by an army priest in 1902, and their union lasted until the composer's death. Due to several successful appearances as a conductor, Rachmaninoff was offered a job as conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904, although political reasons led to his resignation two years later. In 1908, he moved to Italy, and later to Dresden, Germany, while waiting for the political situation in Russia to normalize.

Recordings on shellac and paper rolls

Rachmaninoff made his first recordings for Edison Records on their "Diamond Disc" records, since they claimed the best audio fidelity in recording the piano at the time. Rachmaninoff did not consider himself a great pianist and believed his own performances to be variable in quality; he therefore requested to personally approve any recorded performances to be commercially issued. Despite this, the Edison Company issued multiple alternative takes of Rachmaninoff's recordings, a common occurence in the gramophone record industry at the time, possibly for reasons of simple carelessness or because of the ease of mass production of records from multiple masters.

Rachmaninoff was so angered by this that he left Edison and subsequently started recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company and its successor, RCA Victor. The company was pleased to abide by Rachmaninoff's restrictions, and proudly advertised him as one of the great artists who recorded for the Victor Company. Rachmaninoff also made a number of piano rolls; initially disbelieving that a roll of punched paper could provide an accurate record, he was invited to listen to a master roll of his first recording in 1919 for the Ampico company. After the performance, he was quoted as saying "Gentleman — I, Sergei Rachmaninoff, have just heard myself play!" He continued to record for Ampico until around 1929.

Immigration to the US

Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States as a pianist in 1909, an event for which he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (op. 30, 1909). This successful tour made him a popular figure in America, and he emigrated to New York following the Russian Revolution of 1917. His compositional output slowed to some degree, partly because he was required to spend much of his time performing to support his family, but mainly because of homesickness; he felt that when he left Russia, it was as if he had left behind his inspiration. Nevertheless, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, today one of his best-known works, was written in the United States in 1934.

He went on to compose his Symphony No. 3 (op. 44, 193536) and the Symphonic Dances (op. 45, 1940), his last completed work. He fell ill during a concert tour in the winter of 1943, and was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer, most likely caused by heavy smoking. His last recital, given in February 1943, prophetically featured Chopin's Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat Minor which contains the famous funeral march. He died on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, and was interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

Works

His first three piano concertos are widely considered to be among the greatest in the literature; certainly the second and third are among the most popular ever written. The third, in particular, has the reputation of being the most difficult concerto in the entire repetoire, and is a favorite among virtuoso pianists. Interpretations considered "definitive" are those by Vladimir Horowitz, a close friend of Rachmaninoff; Byron Janis, the only student acknowledged by Horowitz and who had also worked with Rachmaninoff; as well as extant records by Rachmaninoff himself. Other noted interpreters of his music include Ruth Laredo, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Ccile Ousset, Artur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, and Emil Gilels.

A few of his later works, such as the Piano Concerto No. 4 (op. 40, 1926) and the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (op. 42, 1931), are composed in a more emotionally detached style, making them less popular with audiences despite the striking originality of the music. In these later compositions, Rachmaninoff sought a greater sense of compression and motivic development in his works at the expense of melody.

See also

External links

da:Sergei Rachmaninov de:Sergei Wassiljewitsch Rachmaninow es:Sergei Rachmaninov fr:Sergue Vassilievitch Rachmaninov it:Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff nl:Sergej Rachmaninov ja:セルゲイ・ラフマニノフ pl:Siergiej Rachmaninow pt:Rachmaninoff ru:Рахманинов, Сергей Васильевич sl:Sergej Vasiljevič Rahmaninov sv:Sergei Rachmaninov uk:Рахманінов Сергій Васильович

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