Childhood & Early Life
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff was born on April 1, 1873, in Oneg, near Novgorod. His father, Vasily Arkadyevich Rachmaninoff, was an army officer, and an amateur pianist. His mother, Lyubov Petrovna Butakova, was the daughter of a wealthy army general, and showed keen interest in music. Rachmaninoff was their fourth child. His paternal grandfather was a musician, and a student of the famous Irish composer, John Field.
At the age of four, Rachmaninoff started taking piano lessons from his mother. During Rachmaninoff’s childhood, his father suffered financial losses, and sold off his estates. The family moved to Saint Petersburg. Rachmaninoff joined the ‘Saint Petersburg Conservatory’ for his music studies. Later, he was transferred to the ‘Moscow Conservatory’ to train under Nikolai Zverev.
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Sergei Rachmaninoff started his musical compositions much before his graduation from the ‘Moscow Conservatory.’ He was awarded the ‘Rubinstein Scholarship.’ Rachmaninoff spent his summers at his uncle Satin’s private estate in Ivanovka. The peaceful surroundings inspired Rachmaninoff to compose some of his earliest music, which included ‘Piano Concerto No. 1,’ and ‘Prince Rostislav.’
During his final year at the ‘Moscow Conservatory,’ Rachmaninoff gave his first independent concert, where he premiered his composition, ‘Trio elegiaque No.1.’ He composed the opera ‘Aleko’ for his final composition examination. ‘Aleko’ received a lot of appreciation, and won him a gold medal and the highest marks at the ‘Conservatory.’
After graduation, Rachmaninoff entered into a publishing contract. This was his major source of income. In 1892, he composed a five-part piano piece, ‘Morceaux de fantaisie.’
In 1895, Rachmaninoff completed his composition ‘Symphony No. 1.’ It premiered in 1897, at the ‘Russian Symphony Concerts.’ The music was brutally criticized by several musicians, including the noted composer Cesar Cui. He suggested that the music was likely to be appealing to the inmates of Hell. Rachmaninoff was greatly distressed on hearing these criticisms. He went into a state of depression, and was unable to compose any music for a long time. This state lasted for more than three years.
In 1900, Rachmaninoff sought professional help for dealing with his depression. He received therapy from Nikolai Dahl, who was a family friend, and an amateur musician. The treatment was successful, and Rachmaninoff regained his interest in composing music. In 1901, he composed ‘Piano Concerto No.2.’ It was very well received by music lovers. The piece earned him the ‘Glinka Award.’
In 1903, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed one of his largest compositions, ‘Variations on a Theme of Chopin.’ In 1904, Rachmaninoff was appointed as the conductor at the ‘Bolshoi Theatre.’ He demanded high standards of performance during his tenure. Gradually, Rachmaninoff lost interest in the post, and in 1906, he submitted his resignation.
In 1906, Rachmaninoff moved with his family to Dresden, as he was tensed about the political turmoil in Russia. The music scene and environment of Dresden was more inspiring and conducive. He composed his ‘Symphony No. 2,’ while in Dresden. It was a great success, and earned him the ‘Glinka Award’ for a second time. During this period, he returned to Russia.
In 1909, Rachmaninoff joined the ‘Boston Symphony Orchestra,’ on their tour of the United States. In the tour, Rachmaninoff gave 26 performances as a composer, 19 as a pianist, and 7 as a conductor.
In 1910, Rachmaninoff was appointed as the Vice President of the ‘Imperial Russian Musical Society.’ In 1912, he submitted his resignation, following some disagreements.
In 1917, at the start of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff feared for the safety of his family. Around the same time, he received an offer to perform piano recitals in Scandinavia. Rachmaninoff accepted the offer, and left Russia along with his family. In 1918, he moved to New York City, and spent the most of his later life in the city.
While in New York, Rachmaninoff derived his major income from performing, and conducting performances. He had little time for composing. Moreover, the relocation to a foreign land had an adverse impact on him. Rachmaninoff could produce only six works after relocating to the United States.
In an effort to create an atmosphere conducive to composing, Rachmaninoff built a villa on the banks of Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland. From the comforts of his home, he composed ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,’ and ‘Symphony No. 3.’ In 1942, Rachmaninoff’s health declined and he shifted to California following his doctor’s advice.
Family, Personal Life & Legacy
Sergei Rachmaninoff was married to Natalia Satina. As they were first cousins, their marriage was against the rules of Russian Orthodox Church. The couple tied the knot in 1902, amid protests. They had two daughters: Irina, Tatiana.
In 1942, during one of his tours, Rachmaninoff was diagnosed with an advanced stage of melanoma. On March 28, 1943, he breathed his last. His body was interred at the ‘Kensico Cemetery’ in New York. Since Rachmaninoff had been granted citizenship of the United States a month prior to his death, his body could not be taken to Moscow, as per his last wishes.