Sophisticated, lyrical, layered. Peek into the troubled world of one of the most famous romantics, Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff.
When you say Rachmaninoff – the first thing that comes to mind is the piano. After all, he spent most of his life playing it, becoming one of the key figures in classical music, not only in Russia but worldwide.
Between ingenuity, passion, lyricism, and composition, we reveal ten interesting facts about Rachmaninoff that you may not have known.
Composer, pianist, or both?
Although the apparent answer to this question would seem to be “both”, this is a really complex issue. As a student at the Moscow Conservatory, his mentor discouraged him from pursuing a career as a composer, which only made him do one thing – find another mentor. This was not an easy road, as he spent a lot of time and energy navigating between his two passions, being a composer and a pianist at the same time. On the one hand, he was earning a living as a pianist, but on the other, it left him with less time for being the composer he wanted to be.
Taught by a legend
The person who instantly spotted Rachmaninoff’s talent at the Moscow Conservatory was none other than Tchaikovsky. Recognized and famous even during his lifetime, Piotr Illitch Tchaikovsky’s support for this young musician was of crucial importance. Sadly, the mentorship was cut short by his sudden and mysterious death a year after Rachmaninoff graduated. Elegiac Trio No. 2 was dedicated to Tchaikovsky.
He loved to read, but not everyone loved him
Like many great composers before him, Rachmaninoff was an avid reader with a preference for the Russian classics. In 1892 he adapted Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies into an opera as his graduation work which impressed conservatory judges. However, not everyone was impressed. When he finally got a chance to meet Tolstoy, one of the greatest writers of all time, things didn’t go as he planned.
Tolstoy simply said:
“I hate your music”.
The disaster of the First Symphony
Rachmaninoff was insecure and too hard on himself. He didn’t really know how to cope with failure and his First Symphony was exactly that. He took it so personally that it pushed him into a three-year-long depression. Maybe one could say he was a bit too dramatic as well. One of the reasons for this terrible performance was under-rehearsal and most probable drunk conductor Alexander Glazunov. He was so drunk that the musicians struggled following him, resulting in a complete fiasco.
The despair and the recovery
After the First Symphony disaster, the composer found himself utterly devastated and depressed at the age of 24. He seemed to have completely given up and lost all hope, doubting everything he accomplished, even including his life calling. His only touch with music during that period was the occasional directing of the Savva Mamontov Opera troupe. During this dark time, a mysterious doctor Nicolas Dahl appeared. He was a hypnotist who assured Rachmaninoff that this method will help him fully recuperate. During 1900, Rachmaninoff was seeing him daily and the recovery soon followed – the famous RACH 2 was composed in 1901, and Rachmaninoff was automatically brought back to life!
A pianist, a composer, and a conductor
Rachmaninoff was well known as a pianist and a composer, but he was also a conductor. His contemporaries had the chance to witness and praise his role as a musical leader. One such example took place when he accepted the offer as a musical director of the Bolshoi in which he put his heart and soul. Composer Medtner wrote in an article in 1933:
“I will never forget the interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony by Rachmaninoff. We were able to hear it as if for the first time”
Although known for it, the piano isn’t the only instrument Rachmaninoff composed for. He completed four lyrical works and got a gold medal for composition for his first opera Aleko. Still, we don’t get to see these works very often nowadays. The librettos are deemed too flat and unfit for singing. His opera Francesca da Rimini didn’t turn out the way it was supposed to because he never managed to find a common ground with the librettist Modest Tchaikovsky who was the famous composer’s brother.
Sometimes too romantic?
Rachmaninoff was often criticized for being too sentimental. Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Debussy were considered the “great musicians” at the time and, to critics, Rachmaninoff’s romanticism came off as somewhat unsophisticated. His works were seen as too “easy” and his Piano Concerto No. 2 was even called “dripping music” even though it was loved by the audience.
A new chapter
After the revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family moved to the United States. Offered a new opportunity, he commits to becoming a full-time pianist which allowed him to support his family. While performing across the United States and Europe, hardly even composing anymore, the single word is being associated with him – a virtuoso.
The war and the death
Rachmaninoff couldn’t shake the presence of death. During the war, he lost a lot of loved ones including his cousin Vera in 1909 with whom he had a relationship before marrying his wife. He never fully let go of it and it influenced his life and work greatly.
He died in 1943 from lung cancer and was buried in the State of New York, thousands of miles apart from his homeland Russia.