Sergei Rachmaninoff: 10 (little) things you may not know about the composer

Enter the tormented world of Sergei Rachmaninoff, one the last of the great Romantics, a world full of lyricism and elegance, but also darker nuances.

Sergei Rachmaninoff: 10 (little) things you may not know about the composer
Sergei Rachmaninoff: 10 (little) things you may not know about the composer, © Getty / Library of Congress

The name Sergei Rachmaninoff is often associated with his instrument of choice: the piano; and with good reason, since the Russian composer dedicated the majority of his musical output to the keyboard. However, Rachmaninoff also took great interest in opera and song, and even conducted on several occasions his own works and those of his mentor, Tchaikovsky. 

Between Russia and the United States, anguish and exile, virtuosity and composition: here are 10 (little) things that you (perhaps) do not know about one of the last figures of musical romanticism.

Pianist or composer?

Many will answer "both!" Yet, in the case of Rachmaninoff, the question proves to be somewhat problematic. A young student at the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff's professor Nikolaï Zverev was against his ambitions to become a composer. Keen nonetheless to follow his dream, the young Sergei left his first mentor.

Throughout his life, Rachmaninoff was forced to juggle between his career as a (virtuoso) pianist and his work as a composer. Though the regular concert tours allowed Rachmaninoff the pianist to earn a living and to support his wife and two children, they limited the creative capacities of Rachmaninoff the composer.

Tchaikovsky: idol and mentor

The first to immediately recognise Sergei Rachmaninoff's potential at the Moscow Conservatory was none other than Pyotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky. The respected composer was a teacher at the Moscow institution, preceded by an immense reputation and authority: such support was therefore priceless to the young Rachmaninoff.

However, Rachmaninoff could only briefly count upon the support of Tchaikovsky after graduating from the conservatory as the Russian composer passed away a year later in 1893 (under seemingly mysterious circumstances). Deeply moved by such a loss, Rachmaninoff dedicated his Trio élégiaque No. 2 to the great composer.

A (Russian) literary enthusiast!

Much like his Romantic predecessors, Rachmaninoff was a great enthusiast of literature, though preferably Russian. Though he discovered with great passion  the works of Victor Hugo in the hope of adapting Notre-Dame de Paris (a project which he later abandoned), it is the work of his fellow patriots, such as Pushkin, that he would eventually put to music. 

And yet, his encounter with one of the greatest Slavic authors, Leo Tolstoy, proved to be disastrous. Tolstoy profoundly disliked the music of Rachmaninoff, going so far as to say "I hate your music" after hearing the composer perform...

The fiasco of the First Symphony

Rachmaninoff was a sensitive, anxious, and extremely self-critical character. Every criticism and rejection by his contemporaries was a hard blow for the composer, and the failure of the Symphony no.1 plunged Rachmaninoff into a deep depression that lasted almost three long years.

A disastrous premiere for Rachmaninoff, but through no fault of his own: the conditions for the premiere of the Symphony no.1 (1897) were unfavourable to say the least. Held in St Petersburg, the premiere therefore took place in the rival city to Moscow, where Rachmaninoff lived as a student. And to make matters worse, the premiere's conductor, Alexandre Glazounov arrived on stage completely drunk, making it near impossible for the musicians to follow his directions... 

Depression and hypnosis

Following the failure of the Symphony no.1 in 1897, Rachmaninoff was still young (only 24 years old) but already broken and distraught. He questioned everything, including his vocation as a composer, and his only musical activity consisted in occasionally conducting the Savva Mamontov private opera in Moscow.

The composer thus sought the help of Nicolas Dahl, a talented neurologist and hypnotist who managed to inspire the composer and spark within him a new wave of confidence. Between January and April 1990, Rachmaninoff visited the mysterious doctor on a daily basis, and eventually managed to finally complete the score for his Piano Concerto no.2 (1901). The work's successful premiere marked the return of Rachmaninoff.

An excellent conductor

We are familiar with Rachmaninoff the virtuoso pianist, Rachmaninoff the composer, but we are less familiar with Rachmaninoff the conductor. And yet, his elegant style of conducting was praised by his contemporaries. 

In 1904, Rachmaninoff accepted the position of musical director of the Bolshoi Theatre (for mainly financial reasons), one in which he was fully invested and for which he was widely noticed. "I will never forget the performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony no.5 by Rachmaninoff", wrote the composer Nikolaï Medtner in an article published in 1933. "We were able to hear the work as if for the first time."

Two operas

Rachmaninoff did not limit himself to writing only for his favourite instrument, the piano. He also left behind four completed lyrical works, and his first opera Aleko even earned him the gold medal for composition at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892.

Today, however, these works are rarely performed on stage. Their libretti are considered too flat and unsuitable for singing, in particular that of the second and final opera Francesca da Rimini (1906), a lengthy and exhausting project for Rachmaninoff since the composer was surprisingly unable to get along with his librettist, Modeste Tchaïkovsky (brother of Rachmaninoff's mentor and friend).

Snubbed (occasionally)

Rachmaninoff's natural inclination for sentimentality and romanticism was widely criticised… It is important to remember that, at the turn of the 20th century, musical tastes were turned towards Modernism and all things avant-garde. Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy…  These composers were challenging the codes of "learned" music, and Rachmaninoff's overtly romantic works portrayed the composer as somewhat bland and outdated in the eyes of critics.

Rachmaninoff was notably criticised for composing "easy" works that were "too popular": despite the warm reception by the public, the Piano Concerto no.2 was criticised by the press following its premiere in 1901 for its excessively romantic nature, "oozing" with sentiment. Fortunately, today the work has earned its place in the pantheon of the greatest works for piano, and can even be heard in various film soundtracks including The Seven Year Itch (1955) with Marylin Monroe

Virtuosity recorded!

Following the revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff, his wife, and his two children left Russia and moved to the United States. A fresh start for the musician: he stopped composing almost entirely and dedicated himself to his career as a virtuoso pianist, allowing him to support his family. 

Was this by choice or by necessity? Whatever the case, Rachmaninoff's reputation as a legendary virtuoso pianist followed him wherever he went, be it England, France, or the United States. This virtuosity can be heard to this day, with almost 10 hours of phonograph recordings of Rachmaninoff performing preserved and even remastered.

Death's shadow

Sergei Rachmaninoff was forever haunted by the idea of death. The war and the loss of his loved-ones (notably his cousin Vera in 1909 with whom he shared a brief romance before marrying Natalia) constantly darkened his thoughts. 

Rachmaninoff died on 28 March 1943 of lung cancer. A naturalised American citizen, he was buried in the state of New York, far from his native Russia, a homeland whose memory lived on through the composer's music and his everyday thoughts.