Sergei Rachmaninov | Biography

Biography

Sergei Rachmaninov’s music is characterised by sweeping melodies, virtuosic pianism and heady orchestration. His Moscow training equipped him first and foremost to be a concert pianist but as a young composer he showed prodigious gifts, stunning his mentor Tchaikovsky with the C sharp minor Prelude and the one-act opera Aleko he composed while still in his teens. Tchaikovsky’s influence is reflected in the opera, based on Pushkin’s tale of an urban man seduced by a Carmen of the Steppes. The grand man of Russian music died prematurely in 1893, leaving Rachmaninov bereft. The next few years of late adolescence were painful. An unhappy 1897 premiere for his First Symphony, conducted by an unstable Alexander Glazunov, is supposed to have triggered a deep depression cured only by the hypnosis of Dr Nikolai Dahl, though more recent research suggests that Dahl’s pretty daughter was more likely to have been the reason for Rachmaninov’s convalescence. Yet during that time, he worked hard at nurturing another talent as an opera conductor. Rachmaninov left behind only three much later recordings as a conductor, but they reveal a supreme flexibility and an unerring sense of structure. The First Symphony was one work he never conducted. The score was lost when he emigrated to the USA, but after his death the individual orchestral parts were found allowing the score to be put together again. It is, in its youthful extremes, as characteristic a work as any he composed. Nearly all of its material is derived from two themes: the second is a slightly exotic love melody; the first is an early example of Rachmaninov’s fascination with the world of Russian chant and the Latin hymn for the day of wrath, the ‘Dies Irae’. That hymn was to appear frequently in his work. As to the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, a key feature of their chants is the way that phrases move in narrow intervals, mostly stepwise, up and down. Many of Rachmaninov’s symphonic and concerto themes operate in this way, far from the wide-leaping intervals of the general late Romantic style. The melody for unison strings in the Second Piano Concerto, regarded as the work which truly brought Rachmaninov out of the doldrums in 1901, is one example. Before it, at the very beginning of the concerto, the piano’s introduction reflects the other most important influence on his music: the sound of Russian bells, recalling the chordal tolling in the C sharp minor Prelude. In his reminiscences, Rachmaninov wrote: ‘All my life I have taken pleasure in the differing moods and music of gladly chiming and mournfully tolling bells. This love for bells is inherent in every Russian. One of my fondest childhood recollections is associated with the four notes of the great bells in the St Sophia Cathedral of Novgorod, which I often heard when my grandmother took me to town on church festival days.’ The four notes are heard over and over again in the third movement of his First Suite for two pianos, and in his second opera, The Miserly Knight, based on Pushkin’s ‘little tragedy’ about the sin of covetousness. In this Rachmaninov was following in a tradition established by Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, and he brought it to its highest and deepest levels in his 1913 ‘choral symphony’ The Bells.  The poems by Edgar Allen Poe, adapted into Russian by Konstantin Balmont, are one half rapturous and one half gloomy. There is some spectacularly demanding choral writing and the orchestration shows Rachmaninov at his best. Along with the Vespers (sometimes known as the All Night Vigil) for unaccompanied chorus of 1915, The Bells contains much of his most profound music. Rachmaninov was also thinking big in his music for solo piano, including two colossal sonatas — the second much revised — and the stunning sequences of Preludes and Études-Tableaux. The second set of these he completed along with his most haunting songs just before his hurried departure with wife and children from revolution-torn Russia at the end of 1917. What followed was an incident-packed but highly pressurised time abroad as an exile. In America Rachmaninov was thought of as a virtuoso pianist first and a great composer second, which meant that composition, and the inspiration needed for it, took a back seat. This did at least result in a huge number of recordings both of the solo repertoire and of the piano concertos — he composed a fourth in 1926, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 — with the glossy sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. It was for the Philadelphia, too, that Rachmaninov wrote his last major orchestral works, the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances. Both contain music of great poignancy, homesickness even, alongside passages of orchestral brilliance. The Symphonic Dances show Rachmaninov looking back over his life. The piece includes significant musical quotations, and ends in a battle between the ‘Dies Irae’ and the ‘Alleluias’ of the Vespers. Rachmaninov never returned to his homeland but in one surprising swansong, a transcription of Tchaikovsky’s Lullaby, he remembered his greatest mentor and his own beginnings.