Composer of the Week: Sergei Rachmaninoff
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Northwestern Russia in 1873. His parents’ and grandparents’ generations were once wealthy members of Russia’s ruling class. Rachmaninoff’s father was an amateur pianist, as well as an army officer. His mother’s family was wealthy, and paid his father a large dowry when he married their daughter. Unfortunately, his father was very bad with money, gambling or wasting most of it. Still, the family could afford piano lessons for young Sergei, an instrument that he became well known for playing.
Sergei entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory to study music at age 10. By 1885 (age 12) he had failed most of his regular education classes, had tried to alter his report cards, and generally was a poor student. His mother then enrolled him the Moscow Conservatory with his original piano teacher, who was much more strict. He graduated the conservatory and started performing solo concerts by age 18. He also started composing as a teenager. By age 23 he had written his first symphony. Despite his great talent, the symphony was a disaster and a public failure. Other famous composers compared it to “the ten plagues of Egypt” (and worse), and Rachmaninoff became very depressed for several years.
Rachmaninoff did not give up after this major setback. He came back to write his second piano concerto and second symphony, both of which were very well-received by the public. He continued composing until he left Russia in 1917, moving to the United States. From 1917-1943, he became more known as a conductor and pianist rather than a composer. Still he wrote many works for piano and orchestra, symphonies, choral pieces and even three operas. He is Mr. Walter’s favorite composer (favorite piece of music: Symphony No. 2 in e minor). Sergei Rachmaninoff died of cancer in 1943.
Music historians have debated whether Rachmaninoff is a Modern Period or Romantic Period composer. He is usually considered what we call a "Neo-Romantic" or "Post-Romantic" composer, meaning his music fits the Romantic Period (with huge swings of emotion, soaring melodies, brass and percussion, complicated and longer pieces), but that he lived mostly in the Modern Period.