Biography of Rachmaninoff

By Kurt Schindler

This biography has been read by the great composer in person, and is, therefore, accurate.

Rachmaninoff is now (1919) 45 years of age. He was born on the 20th of March, 1873, on the estate of his mother, called “Oneig,” in the province of Novgorod; that is to say, in the heart of the real Russia, where he spent his childhood, until he reached his ninth year. Thus Rachmaninoff comes exactly from the same part of Russia as Rimsky-Korsakoff, and one can say with certainty that in his case, as in that of the older master, the fact that he spent his childhood in the seclusion of country life, in the midst of the typical Russian landscape – with its simple but irresistible charm – has given the formation of the composer’s character its decisive direction.

A Significant Ancestry

The son of rich parents, belonging to the stock of the old Russian nobility, Rachmaninoff was at first destined to enter into the most aristocratic school of Russia. But fate decided differently; the financial conditions of his parents took a sudden turn for the worse, and it became necessary to give up the idea to place the child in this very expensive, aristocratic school. As it was, this turned out to the boy’s advantage, because he already showed with absolute certainty very unusual musical gifts. This musical talent was not a surprise to his family, because his grandfather, a Russian nobleman of the grand style, had been a great lover of music – more than that, a remarkable pianist. He had been a pupil of Field, and through all his life he had made very serious musical studies. Though the prevailing customs in the time of the grandfather prevented him from taking up music professionally he had often appeared in various charity concerts.

About the playing of Rachmaninoff’s grandfather we have the testimony of Rachmaninoff’s cousin, A. I. Siloti, the famous pianist, one of Liszt’s favorite pupils, and a prominent figure in the present day musical life, of Russia. According to this authoritative witness, Rachmaninoff’s grandfather played the piano better than either Siloti or Rachmaninoff could ever dream of playing. Of course this expression should be taken “cum grano salis,” but it shows the profound impression Siloti had received from his grand uncle. Thanks to the musical traditions already existing in his family by the example of of this grandfather, Rachmaninoff did not have to overcome many obstacles in order to follow his vocation.

To Anna Ornadtskaia, a pupil of the Petrograd conservatory, belongs the honor of having been the first teacher of the boy Rachmaninoff; she was so successful in her efforts that when he, at the age of 9 years, entered the Petrograd conservatory he immediately drew upon him universal attention, and became at once the pride and hope of that institution. Special attention was paid to his piano tuition, which he received from Prof. Vladimir Demiansky, a well-known and highly respected teacher, and later, for a short period, from Cross.

Not a Prodigy

His own musical faculties, his excellent teachers, and, above all, the general love and admiration which surrounded the lad might have easily turned him into a child prodigy. Fortunately, however, his healthy and richly gifted nature prevented such a development, and the career of the boy, then called “The pride and adornment of the conservatory,” took its normal way towards the heights of art.

In 1885, A. I. Siloti, who had just finished his musical education under Liszt, visited Petrograd. When he heard his young cousin play, he advised him to develop his musical talents still further and for this reason to take up residence in Moscow, in order to study with Nicolai Sergeievitch Zvieriev, professor of the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninoff took this advice, and was invited by his new master to live with him in his own house.

Later on, during the season of 1885-86, Siloti recommended his cousin to Liszt, who consented to accept young Rachmaninoff among his pupils from the beginning of the autumn of 1886. This plan, however, came to naught, since Liszt died during the summer of that year, and Rachmaninoff went on with his studies with Zvieriev. In 1887 Siloti received a call as professor of the Moscow Conservatory; Rachmaninoff entered his master class, and under his cousin he finished his studies with brilliant success in the spring of 1891. His pianistic accomplishments, however, did not satisfy the young musician, who possessed, besides his unusual talents as reproductive virtuoso, rich sources of creative force; for this reason, while working on his pianistic development, he made serious studies in musical theory with S. I. Taneieff and A. Arensky.

Having graduated from the conservatory as a pianist, young Rachmaninoff remained there for one year more and delivered there for the final examination his opera Aleko, which was successfully performed in April, 1893, on the stage of the Grand theater of Moscow.

This success gave wings to the young composer, who now devoted himself passionately to composition. During the summer of 1893, in the quiet seclusion of country life, he finished many compositions; six songs, the first Suite for two pianos, a violin piece and an orchestral phantasy, The Rock, also a choral work for church, called, The Prayers of the every Watchful Mother of God. This latter composition has never been published, although it has been performed in Moscow; all the other before mentioned works, however, enjoy a well-merited and widespread reputation.

Tchaikovsky’s Death

In the fall of 1893, Rachmaninoff received a very auspicious engagement to conduct his opera Aleko in Kieff, when unexpectedly on the 20th of October the tragically sudden death of P. I. Tchaikovsky occurred. This was a heavy blow for all musical Russia, and especially to our young composer, for Tchaikovsky represented to him not only the natural pride and ideal, but was personally dear and near to him. Ever since young Rachmaninoff’s arrival in Moscow, Tchaikovsky had been exceedingly interested in the boy’s growing talent and had followed his development with ardent sympathy.

Especially touching was this interest of Tchaikovsky in regard to Rachmaninoff’s operatic first attempt, Aleko, the stage rehearsals of which he attended, together with the young composer, helping in every possible way by his advice to contribute to its success at its first performance. It was his special desire to have his one act opera, Iolanthe, which he was then just finishing, performed together with Aleko on the same evening.

Under the immediate impression of the heavy bereavement – both artistic and personal – through the death of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff composed his Trio Elegiaque, which was successfully performed in January, 1894.

The creative power of Rachmaninoff continued to assert itself, and the above mentioned compositions were followed by a series of piano pieces of 10, and an orchestra capriccio on gipsy themes of 12, which received considerable approval from N. A. Rimsky-Korsakoff.

In the summer of 1895 his first symphony was composed, and was performed in January, 1896, at one of the Russian Symphony concerts given under the auspices of the publisher Belaieff. Unfortunately, owing to its unskillful rendition, this first large symphonic work of the young composer did not meet with pronounced success, and – what was worse – it seemed to the young author that it had been an actual failure. This mishap produced a strong impression upon the sensitive spiritual organization of the composer, who in respect of hypersensitiveness and lack of confidence in his own powers, resembled two other great predecessors, Glinka and Tchaikovsky.

It is know that Glinka spoke of himself as of a “mimosa,” which closes her leaves at every touch; such was the temperament of Tchaikovsky, and such is Rachmaninoff’s, too. After having shown so many promising signs of creative genius, there came now a pause of almost three years, during the course of which his physical forces failed him to such extent that the young composer was forced to have recourse to medical help.

Conducting Opera

Of course, in spite of the interruption of his creative period, his artistic life was very much occupied; either he appeared as pianist in concerts, or, still more often, he conducted orchestral concerts, an activity for which he also appeared to be singularly gifted. In this direction Rachmaninoff, as did many other leading Russian musicians, received considerable help and push from the well-known Moscow Maecenas, S. V. Mamontoff, who at that time (1896) supported his own opera company in Moscow. Rachmaninoff was engaged by him for the post of third conductor, and in this position he acquired the routine so indispensable for even the most highly gifted musicians. Besides this, Rachmaninoff found here the important chance to become closely acquainted with the small group of highly talented artists of different types, whom Mamontoff used to assemble around him; especially with Th. I. Shaliapine, who at the time was only beginning his career.

Rachmaninoff, who, of course, as a musician was incomparably superior to Shaliapine, became so much interested and charmed by the brilliant dazzling talent of the young singer, that he gave freely of his time and interest in order to further Shaliapine’s musical development.

After finishing his operatic season with Mamontoff, Rachmaninoff went to London (1887), where he appeared successfully in all his capacities; as pianist, composer and conductor (performing his orchestral phantasy, The Rock).

With the beginning of the twentieth century, the wounds received by Rachmaninoff through the failure of his first symphony, began to heal, and he gradually set to work again on compositions. In 1901 he wrote his well-known song, Fate (included in op. 26 and published 1906); his second piano concert, op. 18; and the second suite for two pianos, op. 17.

In 1902 there followed; The ‘cello sonata, op. 20; the choral cantata, Springtime, op. 21; twelve songs, op. 22, and piano variations on a theme of Chopin. Finally, in 1903,he wrote the universally known Ten Preludes for Piano.

Operatic Works

In the autumn of 1903, Rachmaninoff, who always had a special fondness for the genius of Pushkin, created, in the course of three or four weeks, his opera, The Miser Knight (after a dramatic scene of Pushkin’s) – in 1904 followed another opera, Francesco da Rimini, which, like the afore mentioned, shows a splendid combination of his mature style of rare mastership.

Both these operas were performed in 1905, first in Moscow and later in Petrograd, and met with considerable success, not as much, however, as they might have deserved.

Another short interruption of his creative activity should be chronicled; it occurred during the season of 1904-1905, when he was invited to become first conductor of the Moscow Imperial Grand Opera; this position gave him an opportunity to lead the masterworks of many composers.

In 1906, Rachmaninoff took up his residence in Dresden, devoting most of his time to pianistic concert activities, in which domain he gradually attained a world-wide reputation.

In the same time Rachmaninoff made many European appearances as a composer. Especially should be mentioned a performance in Paris, of his Springtime – a Cantata, with Shaliapine as soloist, under the leadership of Chevillard (1906).

During the season of 1906-07 Rachmaninoff wrote his Second Symphony, op. 27; and his first Piano Sonata, op. 28; and during 1907-08 the Symphonic Poem, The Island of Death, op. 29. These three works belong to the best known among his compositions.

The season of 1908-09 finds Rachmaninoff again in Russia, where he was offered the post of vice president of the Imperial Russian Music Society. Thanks to this position, which he occupied for three years, he had to work considerably on the question of developing the general musical education in Russia. The obligations of this position – together with his manifold activities – absorbed so much of his time that for a certain length of time we find again an interruption of his productivity.

During the summer of 1909 his third Piano Concerto was composed, and in 1911 a series of songs, op. 32. In 1912 Rachmaninoff succeeded in tearing himself away from his activities and devoting himself again to the larger forms of composition; it was then that the third Symphony, op. 35, appeared. This Symphony, which bears the subtitle “The Bells” (after Edgar Allen Poe, translated by Balmont), shows the fullest development of his orchestral style in large dimensions. In the same year the second Piano Sonata was composed.

Rachmaninoff made several concert tours in these and the following years; in 1909 he visited the United States, in 1911 Holland, and in the beginning of 1914 he made a general tour through Europe. Between times Rachmaninoff was conductor of the Moscow Symphony concerts (1912-1913). When the big war started, Rachmaninoff made a prolonged tournee through all Russia, giving concerts for the wounded soldiers and victims of the war. In 1915 he undertook another concert tournee through Russia, but this time for another reason, the untimely death of his intimate friend Seriabine, impelled Rachmaninoff thus to honor his memory by performing and spreading the knowledge of his work all over Russia.

The tragical events, which happened in Russia in 1917, forced the composer to leave his native land in December 1917, and take up his residence in the Scandinavian countries.

As a real Russian and a great hearted man, Rachmaninoff feels deeply the woes and misfortunes that have befallen his homeland. But if there is sadness in his exile during these times of stress, there is also a hopeful side to it. Rachmaninoff is at the present moment on of the first – fi not the very first – representatives of Russian musical art, and owing to the particularly rich organization of his talent, he embodies within him all the possibilities of musical manifestation as an original composer, as a virtuoso of the first rank, and as a remarkable conductor.

Exiled as he is by the force of circumstances from Russia, where he had reached his fullest artistic development, Rachmaninoff must be considered at the present moment as a plenipotentiary ambassador extraordinary from Russian musical art to the civilized world, with a mission to remind the world what it owes to humbled and (at present) unhappy Russia. He is the veritable high priest of Russian musical art.

To all that we have said about the quality of Rachmaninoff as a composer, let us add that he is the prototype of the conscientious artist who puts the highest demands upon himself, and that he is able to combine the deep emotionalism of his creative thought with the filigree delicacy and the finishing touch of the most minute detail work.

Rachmaninoff has never been a child prodigy, but all the more certain, all the more direct, has been his development. To everyone who will take the trouble to analyze the content and the technique of his compositions it will be clear beyond doubt that he is now in the full bloom of his creative forces, and that he has still many precious works to give to a world which needs them so much. We can also feel assured that the diversity of his gifts will not interfere with the development of the particular branches of his activity, although it almost seems impossible to say how he could still further develop as a pianist.