(1 April/20 March -Old style 1873, Oneg - 28 March 1943, Beverly Hills)
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer (the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism) and a leading piano virtuoso of his time. He was born in a family with musical and military background. He took his first piano lessons from his mother at the age of 4 and in 1882 he started studying with Anna Ornatskaya, a teacher from St. Petersburg. After his family's wealth was considerably reduced, due to his father's vices (depicted as "a wastrel, a compulsive gambler, a pathological liar, and a skirt chaser"), Ornatskaya returned to her home, and arranged for Sergey to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which he entered in 1883.
After his father left the family, Sergey's maternal grandmother assumed the parenthood role, especially focusing on their spiritual life. In this period he was taken regularly to the Russian Orthodox services, where he was first exposed to the liturgical chants and the church bells of the city, who had left their mark in his following compositions. Another important musical influence was his sister Yelena's involvement in the Bolshoi Theater.
Sergey's cousin Aleksandr Siloti, an accomplished pianist who was studying under Franz Liszt, noticed his cousin Sergey's abilities and listening skills and suggested sending him to Moscow Conservatory to study under the noted teacher and pianist Nikolai Zverev. It is to Zverev’s strict disciplinarian treatment of the boy that musical history owes one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century.
In 1892 he gave his first independent concert, premiering his Trio élégiaque No. 1, with violinist David Kreyn and cellist Anatoliy Brandukov. That same year he graduated from the conservatory, winning a gold medal for his one-act opera Aleko (awarded only twice before to Sergei Taneyev and Arseny Koreshchenko). This work was premiered on 19 May 1892 and, although Sergey was pessimistic about whether it would be well received or not, the opera was so successful that the Bolshoi Theater agreed to produce it.
His fame and popularity, both as composer and concert pianist, were launched by his composition: the Prelude in C-sharp Minor (part of a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie), played for the first time in public on September 26, 1892. On 6 November (25 October - Old Style) 1893, after receiving the news about Tchaikovsky's unexpected death, he began work on his Trio élégiaque No. 2, just as Tchaikovsky had quickly written his Trio in A minor after Nikolai Rubinstein's death.
After the poor reception of his First Symphony (Op. 13, 1896), premiered on 28 March 1897, Rachmaninoff fell into a period of deep depression that lasted 3 years, during which he wrote almost nothing.
Another composition that boosted his fame was his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, which had its first performance in Moscow on October 27, 1901. The first decade of the 20th century proved to be a fruitful period for Rachmaninoff, who during that time occupied a conductor position at the Bolshoi Theater (1905) and produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor(1907), the tone poem The Isle of the Dead (1907), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor(1909). The last was composed especially for his first concert tour of the United States, highlighting his much-acclaimed pianistic debut on November 28, 1909, with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch.
The one notable composition of Rachmaninoff’s second period of residence in Moscow was his choral symphony The Bells (1913), based on Konstantin Balmont’s Russian translation of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. This work displays considerable ingenuity in the coupling of choral and orchestral resources to produce striking imitative and textural effects. In 1915, following the death of his good friend Alexander Scriabin, Rachmaninoff went on a tour giving concerts entirely devoted to Scriabin's music.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff left Russia and divided his time between residences in the United States and Switzerland. In this last period of his life that lasted around 25 years he became more and more homesick. And this alienation had a devastating effect on his formerly prolific creative ability. The Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (1936) and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra are his most noteworthy works that date from this period. Rachmaninoff’s last major work, the Symphonic Dances for orchestra, was composed in 1940, about two years before his death.
Rachmaninoff’s music, although written mostly in the 20th century, remains firmly entrenched in the 19th-century musical idiom. He was, in effect, the final expression of the tradition embodied by Tchaikovsky—a melodist of Romantic dimensions still writing in an era of explosive change and experimentation.
Here you can find a list of Sergey Rachmaninoff's compositions.