Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (Russian, 1873–1943) lived well into the 20th century, but his compositions are unabashedly Romantic. He started learning the piano at age 4 and graduated from Moscow Conservatory in 1892. Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp minor that he wrote at age 19 became a worldwide hit (and remains a staple of piano repertoire even today). Sadly, that prelude overshadowed much of his early music, and a lack of copyright agreements between Russia and the West meant that Rachmaninoff earned little from its popularity across Europe and the U.S.
Rachmaninoff’s Choral Symphony, The Bells, Opus 35, which premiered in 1913, inspired by the poem by Edgar Allen Poe:
Rachmaninoff premiered his first symphony in 1897, but it was not well-received. Its failure launched him into a three-year depression and writer’s block. However, in 1901, his Piano Concerto No. 2 — which was dedicated to the hypnotherapist who helped him recover — brought him much success and made him a composing and performing phenomenon.
Rachmaninoff’s early body of work included a successful Symphony No. 2 and two piano trios, the beautiful Trios élégiaque, some deeply Russian choral works, many songs and three operas, as well as major sets of variations on themes by Chopin and Corelli for solo piano, plus two books of Etudes-Tableaux.
Political turmoil in Russia spurred Rachmaninoff to travel to the West in the early 1900s. He first toured the U.S. in 1909-10, performing his Third Piano Concerto in New York under Gustav Mahler. (Famous for its complexity and difficulty, this still-popular concert piece was central to the plot of Shine, the 1997 movie about the emotionally-devastated pianist David Helfgott.)
Rachmaninoff emigrated after the Russian Revolution of 1917, eventually settling in the U.S., where he was in demand as both a conductor and a pianist. His virtuosity, impressive stature, large hands and a near-photographic memory gave him a commanding stage presence.
Because Rachmaninoff lived and performed until 1943, we have many recordings of his playing — piano rolls, acoustic discs, electrical recordings. He recorded hit versions of his four piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra (under Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy), along with conducting the orchestra himself in his Third Symphony, great tone poem Isle of the Dead and popular Vocalise. He also recorded performances of Beethoven, Schubert, Grieg, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin.
He holds a well-deserved reputation for being one of the greatest pianists and composers who ever lived.