Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was born into the musical tradition of Tchaikovsky and the 'Mighty Handful', whose five members included Mussorgsky, Borodin and RimskyKorsakov. He remained a thoroughly Russian composer and faithful to the Romantic idiom, even in the face of postwar modernism. 'I cannot cast out the old way of writing,' he once said, 'and I cannot acquire the new'. His music is characterised by melancholia and nostalgia, projected through powerful melodies, sumptuous harmonies and a commanding control of form.
Among Rachmaninoff's pieces was the imposing Prélude in C# Minor from the Morceaux de Fantasie Op.3 (1892). The 19-year-old Rachmaninoff wrote this in the year of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatoire, and with it won international fame. The Prélude creates a distinctly Russian flavour with its brooding opening theme, which makes a powerful return with massive, quasi-orchestral textures, necessitating score presentation on four staves. Rachmaninoff's first opera, Aleko, was completed the same year.
Next, chronologically, come two miniatures: the Nocturne in A minor (No.1 from the Morceaux de salon, Op.10) and the more 'Russian' Andante cantabile (No.3) from Moments musicaux (Op.16). The player might well note the influence of Chopin: no other composer had a greater influence on Rachmaninoff's piano writing. The Op.16 collection effectively closes a 'first period' in the composer's career due to the events surrounding the 1897 première of the First Symphony. It was an unmitigated disaster, perhaps due to sloppy conducting by Glazunov. If public rejection was not enough, the critic and composer César Cui, in his review, wrote that the music would have succeeded brilliantly as a depiction of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, written for a conservatoire in Hell. Rachmaninoff's confidence was shattered completely.
Over the next three years Rachmaninoff concentrated on performance and conducting, while in relative secrecy he attended sessions of hypnotherapy to revive his creative powers. The treatment appeared effective. In 1901 he re-emerged with his Second Piano Concerto and triumphantly launched one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the 20th century.
The 10 Preludes, Op.23, following the Second Piano Concerto, confirmed Rachmaninoff's status as a leading pianist-composer of the age. Counting the early Prélude in C# Minor, together with the Op.32 set of 1910, the composer's 24 Preludes follow in the tradition of Bach and Chopin, with each set in its own unique key.
In between the Prelude collections came the Second Symphony (1907), one of the composer's most beguiling and plaintive offerings, and the Third Piano Concerto. Rachmaninoff introduced the concerto in 1909 during his first tour of the USA — including one performance under Mahler's direction.
Both the Moderato in G Minor, No.8 from the Etudes-tableaux Op.33 (1911), and the haunting Vocalise (1912) are cloaked in velvety textures and belong to the nostalgic, cantabile tradition. The year 1913 saw the first version of his Piano Sonata No.2, Op.36 (revised 1931), and the choral symphony The Bells. It is significant that within his own output Rachmaninoff considered The Bells and the Vespers (or All-Night Vigil, 1915) as his favourite pieces. From The Bells comes an arrangement of music taken from the second movement, Largo ('The Mellow Wedding Bells'). Bathed in lush Romantic harmonies, it stands a world apart from the contemporaneous barbarism of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (1913) or Schoenberg's expressionist, atonal song cycle Pierrot lunaire (1912). Bells provide a connection with the stunning music of the Vespers. 'Shestopsalmiye' (Glory be to God) in its original a cappella choral version conjures bell-like effects with sfp dynamics on held chords, along with close-harmony 'peeling' textures.
The wistful Fragments in A♭ Major was written in Rachmaninoff's final year in Russia. Following the 1917 Revolution, he took his family on tour in Scandinavia and then on to the USA, never to return to his homeland. In subsequent years he divided his time between the USA and Switzerland and focused on concert-giving to generate income. He composed little during the 1920s and his next substantial piece, the Fourth Piano Concerto (1926), failed to excite the public. Interest in the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (1931) has grown in recent times and Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) remains one of Rachmaninoff's most popular works. Rachmaninoff's final composition was the Symphonic Dances (1940). It is a less obviously Romantic work that succumbs, to a point, to modernist influences, as demonstrated by the biting marcato and virtual military aura of the opening section.
Rachmaninoff's smoking habit (20 a day for much of his life) took its cancerous toll on March 28, 1943. It is a curious fact that histories of music, tending as they do to focus on musical developments, often give Rachmaninoff only a few cursory lines. But to many he remains one of the towering musical figures of 20th century: the public evidently don't care when music was written, they just ask, 'Is it good"'.
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