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A triple-threat musician

Sergei Rachmaninoff left mark on American culture

Created date

July 23rd, 2013
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Today, we know Sergei Rachmaninoff as one of the last great composers of the late-Romantic period. But this Russian-born musician was also a renowned pianist as well as a conductor—a rare combination of skills known as a “triple threat” in today’s artistic community. Rachmaninoff’s prodigious abilities elevated him to international recognition, and his musical contributions have had an enduring influence upon modern music. Though he received training in Russia and drew inspiration from Russian composers, Rachmaninoff was eager to share his works with the United States. His tremendous contributions still resonate within America’s contemporary musical culture.

Young talent

Growing up in Russia during the 1870s, Rachmaninoff did not enjoy a stable childhood. His family boasted aristocratic roots, yet lacked the wealth of earlier generations. Rachmaninoff’s mother began giving him casual piano lessons when he was four years old, but it was not until 1882 that the young Rachmaninoff began to seriously study music with Anna Ornatskaya. When his father was obliged to auction off a large amount of family property to pay his debts, Rachmaninoff entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at age 10.

Despite his musical skill, he struggled with discipline. Like many young students, he did not put much effort into academics. Luckily for Rachmaninoff, his cousin Alexander Siloti, already an accomplished pianist, recognized his potential. In addition to a natural aptitude for music, Rachmaninoff had abnormally large hands, allowing him to perform leaps that would be impossible for most other pianists. Siloti suggested that he study with disciplinarian Nikolai Zverev at the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninoff graduated with honors at the age of 19.

An accomplished compositional student, Rachmaninoff had already produced several major works by the time he graduated. But his early career was not without difficulty. After the debut of his first symphony was critically panned, he fell into a deep depression. Discouraged from composing, he began conducting for the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company in order to pay his bills.

In 1901, Rachmaninoff returned to composing with a vengeance. He premiered his second piano concerto, featuring darkly orchestrated first and second movements, haunting melodies, and concluding with a wrenching, passionate third movement. The resplendent finale signified Rachmaninoff’s resolve to transcend his depression and began a new chapter in his career.

International acclaim

After establishing his reputation in Russia and Europe, Rachmaninoff first visited the United States in 1909. He wanted to arrive with a bang, so he began his tour as both composer and performer with his notoriously difficult third piano concerto. After attending his flashy concerts and hearing his impressive compositions, Americans immediately fell in love with Rachmaninoff. Unfortunately, he did not return the sentiment. He disliked the frenetic energy he encountered throughout America. In a letter to his cousin in 1909, Rachmaninoff wrote: “In this accursed country, where you’re surrounded by nothing but Americans and the ‘business,’ ‘business,’ they are forever doing, clutching you from all sides and driving you on—it is terribly pleasant to receive a letter from a Russian girl.” For the next few years, he would repeatedly decline future requests to perform in the states. It wasn’t until the Russian Revolution in 1917 that Rachmaninoff left his native country for good.

After spending some time in Europe, Rachmaninoff gave the United States a second chance and immigrated to New York in 1918. Concert halls throughout the country clamored for his legendary performances. In response to the astounding public demand, Rachmaninoff concentrated on his career as a concert pianist and was a sought-after performer until his death in 1943. His music also became well-known through his records, produced with the Victor Talking Machine and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.

Rachmaninoff’s recordings are treasured by contemporary musicians. Though many great pianists perform Rachmaninoff’s works, his renditions of his own compositions are in a class of their own. Rachmaninoff became an American citizen in February of 1943 and gave his final concert at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He died the next month in California, leaving behind a plethora of compositions and a new standard for concert piano performance.

Enduring legacy

Though Rachmaninoff composed during the late-Romantic era, most Americans today have experienced his music—perhaps without even knowing it. Even after his death, Rachmaninoff’s memorable melodies continued to permeate modern music. In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra based “I Think of You” off the first movement of his second piano concerto. Eric Carmen’s famed “All By Myself” also draws from Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. More recently, the band Muse has incorporated themes from both the second and third piano concertos in their albums.

Just as his talent was not limited to one aspect of music, Rachmaninoff’s fame and influence did not end in Russia. With his brilliant orchestration, dynamic compositions, and unforgettable performances, Rachmaninoff entranced American audiences. It is a mark of his exceptional skill and unmatched style that this Russian composer continues to be both beloved and emulated throughout our musical culture today.