Monday, September 8, 2014

Student Post: Sergei Rachmaninoff - The Forgotten Composer, Part 2

Part 1 here.

After years of hard work, in 1892 Sergei graduated with a gold medal. He was only 19 years old!

The gold medal was for his opera Aleko, which was first performed in 1893. It was admired by a great many people, including Pyotr Tchaikovsky. (Tchaikovsky even asked if Sergei's opera could be performed with one of Tchaikovsky's, which excited Sergei very much.) But Sergei's First Symphony was not so well received. In fact, nobody liked it. Sergei was so upset that he stopped composing for a while. He didn't write any more music for almost three years.

He did start writing again, though, and before World War I started, he had written three concertos, two more symphonies, a symphonic poem, many songs, and lots of piano music. The piano music was written partly for his own amazing hands, so the music is very difficult and full of wide stretches.

In 1902, Sergei finally married his fiancée and cousin Natalia Satina. In the beginning, Sergei was in love with her younger sister, Vera, but Vera and Natalia's mother would have none of that. So Sergei wrote back and forth with Natalia. By the time of their wedding, they had been engaged for three years.

In 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out. The Rachmaninoff family were aristocrats, and so the forty-four-year-old Sergei moved to Switzerland with his family (his wife and two daughters) and decided to focus more on the piano. Many people in the United States offered him work as a composer, and although he turned them down, he finally decided that moving to America would solve some of his financial problems. In 1935, he moved to the United States. He kept composing during this time, even though he was very sad to leave Russia. He and his family tried to make their house in America like their house in Russia.

Sergei became ill during a concert tour in late 1942 and was diagnosed with melanoma, a type of skin cancer (The doctors told his family, but not him). Soon after, he and his wife became American citizens, just two months before he died. He died in Beverly Hills, California, four days before his 70th birthday.


Sergei wrote a lot of music, including: Piano Concerto No. 4; the Variations on a Theme by Corelli, for solo piano; the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, for piano and orchestra; the Third Symphony; and the Symphonic Dances, as well as pieces like Vocalise, Variations on a Theme of Chopin, and The Isle of the Dead. Sergei Rachmaninoff has been somewhat forgotten, but his music is still popular. He was perhaps the best pianist of his lifetime. As part of his daily warm-up exercises, Sergei would play the difficult Étude in A flat, Op. 1, No. 2, by Paul de Schlozer. When performing, he would go up on stage, sit down at the piano, and wait for the audience to be quiet. When he played, it was perfect: he never made a mistake, and his playing could be heard in the back row of the music hall. And he remembered things - if he heard a piece of music just once, he could remember it for a long time, note by note. He could sit down the next day, or six months later, or ten years later, and play it on the piano. He was dedicated to music - he once said, "That is the most important thing for me in my interpretations, color. So you make music live. Without color it is dead." 

Guest Writer: Rachel Holbrook

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