Sergei Rachmaninov

Composer Sergei Rachmaninov

Late, great, Russian Romantic composer. Equally famous as a pianist; many of his best compositions are for that instrument.

Vital Statistics
April 1, 1873, Oneg, near Novgorod, northwestern Russia
March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California
Performed As:
During Lifetime:
The Russian aristocracy, deprived of their traditional serf labor force, go deeply into debt and find their estates impossible to manage. Political unrest, social changes, rapid industrialization, and economic injustice all lead to revolution in 1905 and then again, prompted by the disaster of World War I, in 1917.
Biographical Outline
  • Family hardships 1873-85: Born into a noble family with many good musicians in it, Rachmaninov grows up on one of his family estates at Oneg. His improvident, slightly disreputable father squanders the family’s money until all the estates, including the one at Oneg, have to be sold. The family moves to an apartment in St. Petersburg in 1882. Rachmaninov, who had been taught piano at home, is admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1883, his sister Sofia dies of diphtheria, and in 1884 his parents separate. Rachmaninov’s grades take a nosedive.
  • Becoming a composer, Moscow, 1885-92: Rachmaninov is sent to the Moscow Conservatory to study with the disciplinarian Nikolai Zverev. While living with Zverev’s other students in the teacher’s own apartment, Rachmaninov not only improves his musicianship, he also samples Moscow’s cultural life and meets musicians. In particular, Tchaikovsky becomes a major influence and helps get him into the advanced counterpoint class. His interest in composition causes a rupture with Zverev, and he moves into the house of cousins, the Satins. In 1891, Rachmaninov takes his examinations a year early, graduating with high honors. That summer, at the Satins’ summer estate in Ivanovka (southeast of Moscow), Rachmaninov finishes his First Piano Concerto. A year later (1892), he wins the Conservatory’s Gold Medal in composition with his one-act opera Aleko.
  • Free artist, 1892-1901: Buoyed by the success of his first compositions, Rachmaninov blooms, writing the famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor, the symphonic poem The Rock, and, following Tchaikovsky’s death, his Trio élégiaque No. 2. The premiere of his First Symphony (1897), however, is a fiasco, causing a crisis of confidence that stops him from composing. Later that year he is employed at an opera house (the Moscow Private Russian Opera) as conductor. In April 1899, he makes his first trip abroad, to London. After several meetings with the psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, Rachmaninov’s spirits revive and he composes his Second Piano Concerto (1901), which he dedicates to Dahl.
  • Opera career, 1902-06: Rachmaninov finally is able to marry his first cousin Natalya Satina. They have two daughters, Irina and Tatyana. Back at Ivanovka, Rachmaninov finishes composition of a pair of one-act operas, The Miserly Knight (1903) and Francesca da Rimini (1904). In 1904, he takes a two-year position conducting opera at the Bolshoi Theater, where his own operas eventually premiere. He resigns abruptly in February 1906 and goes to Italy. He finishes one more opera in piano score (Monna Vanna, 1907), but the author, Maurice Maeterlinck, refuses to release the rights.
  • On the go, 1906-16: Partly owing to his daughter’s poor health, Rachmaninov lives in Dresden, Germany, part-time from 1907 to 1909. In November 1909, he makes his first tour of the U.S., taking with him the brand-new Third Piano Concerto. Over the next years, he maintains a taxing performing schedule in Europe, while composing during summers at Ivanovka. He finishes several large-scale choral works, as well as the choral symphony The Bells (1913).
  • Leaving home, 1917: By 1916, as a result of World War I, Russia’s government is falling apart, and the estate at Ivanovka is looted and vandalized (a few years later, it’s destroyed). In 1917, Rachmaninov seizes a chance to perform in neutral Sweden, and the entire family leaves Russia forever.
  • Performer, 1918-31: Needing to provide for his family, Rachmaninov gives over most of his time to a lucrative performing career, first in America, where he buys a house in New York and also signs a recording contract (1921), and then also in Europe (from 1923 on). After the unexpected death of daughter Irina’s husband, Rachmaninov and his wife set up a publishing firm in Paris (named TAIR, named after his daughters) to help support Irina and her baby. The composer completes his Fourth Piano Concerto (1925), but its Philadelphia premiere (1927) is unsuccessful.
  • Last years, 1931-43: Rachmaninov relocates to Switzerland, where he builds a villa on Lake Lucerne, called Senar (merging his and his wife’s names). In this secluded atmosphere he is able to take up composing again, finishing the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and the Third Symphony (1935, revised 1938). In 1939, with war approaching in Europe, Rachmaninov moves back to the U.S. and takes up residence in Beverly Hills. He composes his last work, the Symphonic Dances (1940), and continues performing. Gravely ill, he interrupts his last tour, and dies of cancer a month later. He is buried in Kensico Cemetery outside New York City.
Fun Facts
  • Twin personas: Although his performing demeanor was austere (Stravinsky once called him a “6-foot scowl”), Rachmaninov was sociable and friendly in person and had a wide circle of friends. Late in life, stories of his homesickness and inner sadness began to circulate.
  • Russian to the core: Wherever the Rachmaninovs set up house, they kept Russian customs, hired Russian servants, and entertained Russian visitors. Many of these, such as his cousin Alexander Siloti, arrived in the U.S. at around the same time, fleeing the Russian Revolution.
  • The latest model: Although an old-school Romantic, Rachmaninov loved cars, kept a speedboat moored on Lake Lucerne, and adored New York’s ice-cream sodas. His villa was designed in the modern Bauhaus architectural style.
  • Piano legend: Rachmaninov was undoubtedly one of the greatest 20th-century pianists, and his recorded legacy is now available, remastered in digital audio. His fame as a performer may have, unintentionally, caused the neglect of some of his compositions.
  • Restoration job: Historical work, contemporary photographs, plus the memory of Rachmaninov’s sister-in-law Sofiya Satina, has allowed the estate at Ivanovka to be reconstructed. The small house where Rachmaninov did most of his composing was opened as a museum in 1982, and the manor house in 1995.
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Explore the Music

With his extraordinary gift for making melody, Rachmaninov is one of the most audience-friendly composers. If anything, his reputation has suffered among intellectuals and critics. Yet Rachmaninov was a careful composer, too, and his works are full of craft that often goes unacknowledged.

  • Piano first: Like many composer-performers, Rachmaninov created much of his own performance repertory, so piano works stand at the top of his list of works.
  • All together, now: Rachmaninov also wrote some magnificent choral music. From the cantata Vesna (Spring, 1902) to his Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the Vespers Service (All Night Vigil, 1915), it was an interest that he held all his life.
  • The prelude cycle: Like several other composers since Bach, Rachmaninov wrote a set of preludes in all 24 major and minor keys. Unlike Bach, however, these aren’t studies; rather, they’re like mini-symphonic-poems for piano.
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