A look into the life and music of Rachmaninoff, the composer and pianist. In the streamlined music world of the twentieth century, Sergei Rachmaninoff represents a phenomenon unlikely to be repeated. He was born in 1873, and although his stylistic roots were firmly anchored in the milieu of the Romantic era, he lived and continued to compose well into the present century. Alone and serious, almost gloomy man, he was one who seldom articulated his emotions and feelings in words.

Sergei RachmaninoffAs he confessed once to a friend, words seemed useless for such a purpose. All that he felt and experienced was told far better, and expressed more clearly and truthfully in his music-making. He was born in Oneg, Russia in a great house near enough to ancient Novgorod to catch the echoes of its old bells.

A lonely child after the separation of his parents, young Sergei used to await the winter arrival of his grandmother Butakova, with whom he would tour all the cathedrals and churches in St. Petersburg. When they returned home he would sit at the piano and play over the chants they had just heard  and this before encountering any serious musical training.

The Earliest Recollection

His aunt in St. Petersburg had of the boy was of his independence. It was this sense of aloneness, later developing almost to the point of alienation, which was to remain with him throughout his entire life and imbue much of his musical expression with the intense melancholy for which it is remembered. While his formal training under the tutelage of Sverev and Siloti at the Moscow Conservatory was providing him with the tools with which to shape his already self- motivated musical expression, he met his idol, Peter Tchaikovsky, a frequent visitor at Sverev’s house.

In the function of consulting faculty, the elder master frequently smiled approvingly on young Rachmaninoff’s early efforts at composition. These and a host of other childhood experiences undoubtedly influenced the development of the mature composer’s style. It becomes apparent to the listener even only casually acquainted with Rachmaninoff’s music that its lush expressivity bears the mark of a true Romantic spirit.

That the music is intensely Russian is undeniable. But it is music of the old Russia with emotional ties akin to Glinka and Tchaikovsky rather than the steely, advanced dissonances of his con- temporaries, Prokofieff and Stravinsky. This is more easily understood when it is realized that Rachmaninoff most unwillingly fled Russia. This was at the time of the 1917 Revolution because of an intense lack of sympathy for the new regime. In later years while residing in the United States, the aging composer constantly looked back wistfully upon the Russia he used to know.

Suffering During The Second World War

Incredibly painful for him was the realization of thousands of beloved Russian people dying at the hand of the Axis powers during the Second World War. He still clung to the idealized image of his country, the unsoftened black and white definition of St. Petersburg snowscapes, punctuated by a troika pulling its gay passengers toward the darkening horizon amidst the tolling of distant church bells. Bells, bells, bells.

It was the nearly hypnotic aural impression of their tolling that indelibly stamped itself upon the composer’s mind. The great cathedral bells of Moscow and St. Petersburg are reported to have been manufactured essentially as musical instruments. Capable of playing fully harmonized melodies and achieving a sonority approaching that ofa full symphony orchestra. Small wonder then that bell-like effects appear so often in Rachmaninoff’s music, especially his piano writing.

One way he so uncannily simulates bell tones is via the technique of inserting chime-like progressions characterized by a succession of descending scales, the upper note rising with each repetition. Examples of this and other ingenious coloristic devices to portray the bells appear virtually everywhere many of the Preludes, the Second Piano Sonata, Symphonic Dances, Second Piano Concerto, to name but a few. The composer’s own favorite among his compositions is a poem for solo voices, chorus and orchestra entitled The Bells.

This work is an undisputed masterpiece of orchestral writing effectively imitating the sounds and rhythms of four kinds of bells: silver, gold, brass and iron symbolizing four aspects of human life; birth, marriage, terror and death. Rachmaninoff’s great love for nature and its sounds extended to horses and horseback riding. The evening troika ride was, of course, a great favorite pastime of many Russians at the turn of the century.

Rachmaninoff And His Passion For Horses

But more than that, Rachmaninoff occupied many spare hours training young thoroughbreds for racing. He had numerous opportunities to indulge this penchant for horseback riding as a young man at Ivanovka, an estate which the Rachmaninoff’s later made their home during 1909-1913, shortly before departing from Russia. Listening to Rachmaninoff’s popular Prelude in G minor, or to the second movement of the Second Symphony. One is swept up with an irresistible sense of the gallop.

A similar sensation is conveyed by the repeated rhythmic figure in the Third Piano Concerto. In which the piano romps with an arc-like rhythm reminding one of the hurried approach and passing of a stallion at full speed. Accompanied, no less, by whip-like figures in the woodwinds and trumpets! Another vivid example of equestrian imagery occurs in the Etude-tableaux No. 6 in A minor, Op.39.

Where the tumultuous pace of the rhythm suddenly slows down in a fashion precisely analogous to a rider coming to a brief halt before resuming his chase. It is the piano music of Rachmaninoff that best typifies his genius as an artist. In it is expressed the great extremes of moods of which he was capable. Most of these compositions bear witness to a man of tremendous will and imperiousness, mellowed by an intense Slavic melancholy.

Musically these features find expression in passages laden with restless rhythmic surges and rampant chromaticism which often surround a soaring melodic line. Listen to any of the Preludes or Etudes-tableaux and one’s ears are struck by a barrage of colorful tones. That seem to emerge from every whereon the keyboard at once amidst an intricate rhythmic network. Technically, Rachmaninoff the pianist was capable of virtually anything.

Rachmaninoff As A Performer

Rachmaninoff PianistHe had enormous hands and the murderous figurations in his own piano music are a challenge to any serious student. Like Chopin, his great predecessor of the keyboard. He explored both the percussive and lyrical aspects of piano writing and was remarkably successful in achieving both. As a performer, the tall, lank exile from Russia was something of a paradox.

Although Rachmaninoff the composer is best remembered for his emotional warmth and sensuous lushness. His performances tended to minimize these features, even in his own music. His playing was invariably markedly sharp rhythmic thrusts and virility, enriched by bronze like sonorities. But as an interpreter, he was basically a cerebral, not an emotional artist. This often disappointed many of his listeners expecting a more sentimental style.

His technique however was infallible. And he may be remembered as the most remarkable pianist of this century. There are critical opinions of Rachmaninoff’s music that would place him behind many well-known composers. He has been accused of playing on one string throughout all his compositions. And this can be considered a severe limitation.

But his music nevertheless sincerely communicates a deeply personal utterance. He was truly the bard of intimate moods  as one Moscow critic described him. Perhaps this intimacy is responsible for his music’s popularity and universal appeal. Its attractiveness to music lovers remains undiminished and probably will for a long time.