Sergei Rakhmaninov

credit Corbis Bettmann

Sergei Rakhmaninov, one of the greatest pianists of all time and one of the most outstanding melodists amongst composers, was born at Oneg, near Novgorod, on 20 March 1873 (1 April New Style), into a musical family. In 1888 Rakhmaninov began to study piano with Siloti himself and composition with Sergei Taneyev and Anton Arensky; he also received advice from Tchaikovsky, who was a friend of Siloti and his former teacher.

Rakhmaninov's early career established a pattern he was to follow throughout his life: an uneasy struggle between performing and composing, with economic pressures usually ensuring that precedence needed to be given to the demands of the platform. He was an international figure as early as 1899, when he conducted a concert of his orchestral works in London, also playing some of his piano music. In 1904 Rakhmaninov took up a conductor’s post at the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow.

After the October Revolution in 1917 Rakhmaninov determined that he and his family would have to leave the country, and he accepted an invitation to perform in Stockholm. The composer, his wife and their two daughters left in December; he was never to return. They stayed briefly in Stockholm and Copenhagen, sailing to America in November 1918.

At the time of his last recital, on 17 February 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee, he was already gravely ill, and he died on 28 March, in Beverley Hills.

"A composer´s music should express the land of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books that have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the entire product of the composer´s experience." This artistic credo determined Sergei Rakhmaninov´s creativity throughout his life. It is closely connected with his his distinct rejection of all theoretical concepts and æsthetic programs, such as the ones put forward by the musical avant-garde in the first half of the 20th century. "I have precious little time for composers who write works in accordance with preconceived formulæ or preconceived theories, or composers who write in a certain style because it´s the current fashion. Great music has never been produced this way."

Rakhmaninov´s own works were for a long time anything but the kind of compositions regarded as great music. The failure of his First Symphony so unsettled him that he completely gave up composing for a while. Nevertheless his creations show a clear connection with their biographical context, thus totally fulfilling the composer´s credo. This especially applies to his later works, which take into account his links to 19th century Russian music and 20th century American music as well as his inner conflict as an exiled Russian living in the United States.