The Life and Death of Sergei Rachmaninov
Written by Ashley Willard on April 6, 2021
Sergei Rachmaninov was an elusive pianist and composer, who created a storm in the music world at the age of 18 with his First Piano Concerto. Born in Russia, 1973, Sergei was endowered with a musical genius and very large hand. He could reach up to 2 piano keys from the top of his thumb to the tip of his little finger, making it extremely hard for other pianists to play his symphonies. Nonetheless, Sergei remains a resounding name in classical music.
His Piano Concerto No. 2 is quoted as one of the greatest compositions ever written. The movie Brief Encounter used it and made the song a household name. It was later picked up by the FM radio as well and topped the charts as America’s most beloved classical music. His Symphony No. 2 in Dresden was dreaded by composers. But it is precisely this level of difficulty that makes Sergei’s work a masterpiece to be pulled off only by the greatest musicians.
Rachmaninov was not well-liked by his contemporary critics and composers, neither for his work nor his personality. Sergei’s cold and aloof disposition set him up for ostracization.
They claimed that his work would soon be forgotten. However, history proved them otherwise. Nonetheless, he remained an unstoppable force and composed great pieces including the Cello Sonata, the Second Suite for Two Pianos, the First Symphony, the Second Piano Concerto, and so on. Criticism on the First Symphony sent him hurling into depression, and he had to get hypnosis treatment to land back on his feet.
His personal life also caused quite a stir in Russia. He married his first cousin Natalya, despite that being illegal in the country at that time. They had a daughter together named Irene.
He was not only a master composer but also a phenomenal conductor. The Bolshoi Theatre appointed him the Principal Conductor in 1904. When he left Russia in 1917 and arrived in America, he found himself in great demand. Orchestras and concerts overtook his life, with composing delegated to be reserved for the summer months. By 1923, he had made enough money to fully recreate his Russian house in Los Angeles. Leaving Russia, however, came at a price. He felt lost, and slowly found himself unable to compose. He tried to befriend Russians and revive his desire but to no avail. Between 1929-1931, he moved to France. There he found his lost art again. He bought a house in Switzerland and stayed there till 1939 with his daughter. There he composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and Symphony No. 3 in 1936.
Rachmaninov died of melanoma on 28th March 1943. He had moved back to the US and had spent his final years recording his symphonies with the Philadelphia Academy of Music. He lived a life in pursuit of musical excellence and passed away four days before his 70th birthday.