Sergey Rachmaninoff, in full Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff, Rachmaninoff also spelled Rakhmaninov, or Rachmaninov, (born March 20 [April 1, New Style], 1873, Oneg, near Semyonovo, Russia—died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California, U.S.), composer who was the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism and a leading piano virtuoso of his time. He is especially known for his piano concerti and the piece for piano and orchestra titled Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934).
Major Creative Activity
At the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Rachmaninoff was a conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre. Although more of an observer than a person politically involved in the revolution, he went with his family, in November 1906, to live in Dresden. There he wrote three of his major scores: the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor (1907), the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (1909), 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. Piano Concerto No. 3 requires great virtuosity from the pianist; its last movement is a bravura section as dazzling as any ever composed. In Philadelphia and Chicago he appeared with equal success in the role of conductor, interpreting his own symphonic compositions. Of these, the Symphony No. 2 is the most significant: it is a work of deep emotion and haunting thematic material. While touring, he was invited to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, but he declined the offer and returned to Russia in February 1910.
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.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff went into his second self-imposed exile, dividing his time between residences in Switzerland and the United States. Although for the next 25 years he spent most of his time in an English-speaking country, he never mastered its language or thoroughly acclimatized himself. With his family and a small circle of friends, he lived a rather isolated life. He missed Russia and the Russian people—the sounding board for his music, as he said. And this alienation had a devastating effect on his formerly prolific creative ability. He produced little of real originality but rewrote some of his earlier work. Indeed, he devoted himself almost entirely to concertizing in the United States and Europe, a field in which he had few peers. His only substantial works from this period are the Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (1936), another expression of sombre, Slavic melancholy, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, a set of variations on a violin caprice by Niccolò Paganini. 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.
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