Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff

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The Young Rachmaninoff (1901)

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff ( Russian Сергей Васильевич Рахманинов , scientific. Transliteration Sergei Rachmaninov Vasil'evič ; he himself used as a transliteration of his name Rachmaninoff; born March 20, jul. / 1. April  1873 greg. On the estate Semyonovo in Staraya Russa in the government of Novgorod , Russian Empire ; † March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills ) was a Russian pianist , composer andConductor .


Rachmaninoff at the age of ten

Sergei Rachmaninov was the fourth of six children from the marriage of Vasily Arkadjewitsch Rachmaninow and his wife Lyubow Petrovna Butakowa. The wife brought fortune into the marriage in the form of five estates. However, the father, a good-natured and sociable dreamer, lacked any economic understanding of farming. Within ten years he led the businesses to ruin. Money worries weighed heavily on the marriage. When the last Oneg estate had to be given up in 1882 , the family moved to Saint Petersburg , where the parents finally separated.

The young Rachmaninoff received his first piano lessons at the age of four from his mother, then from a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory . His father and grandfather were neither trained musicians, but were able to play popular melodies with improvised accompaniment in good company. In Saint Petersburg, Rachmaninoff attended the local conservatory and received piano lessons as well as lessons in music theory and general subjects. After Rachmaninoff's sister Sofia died of diphtheria and his parents separated, the burden on his mother became very great. To make matters worse, Rachmaninoff failed the final exam in the general subjects. His scholarship was withdrawn and he had to leave the conservatory. The perplexed mother then turned to her nephew Alexander Siloti , who had just been celebrated as a new star in the Russian pianist heaven. He listened to the young Rachmaninoff playing the piano and recognized his great, but completely untrained talent. Thereupon Siloti suggested that Rachmaninoff attend the class of the piano teacher Nikolai Sergejewitsch Swerew (1832-1897) at the Moscow Conservatory . For just 100 rubles - the family couldn't afford more - Sergei was released to Moscow in 1885.

Study time

Rachmaninov arrived in Moscow in 1885 . Sverv always had three particularly gifted students live with him, and this is how Rachmaninoff found accommodation. Swerew did not ask for any payment or fee for the lessons, and he paid for the French and a German teacher. In return, he demanded an extremely disciplined course of study from his students: there was praise internally at best in the form of approving acknowledgment, but as soon as third parties were present, he overturned recognition.

Rachmaninoff later noted:

“Zverev turned his house, which could have been a musical prison, into a musical paradise. On Sundays, the strict teacher became a completely different one. In the afternoon and evening he kept an open house for the most important figures in the Moscow music world. Tchaikovsky , Taneyev , Arensky , Safonov and Siloti stopped by as well as professors from the university, lawyers, actors, and the hours passed with conversation and music. […] Our impromptu appearances were Swerew's greatest pleasure. No matter what we played, his verdict was always: Excellent! Well done! Outstanding! He let us play what we felt like and asked the guests to join his opinion about us. "

In 1888, Rachmaninoff moved to the advanced class of his cousin Siloti. At the same time he devoted himself increasingly to the subject of composition. But since Rachmaninoff could not find peace and quiet to compose in the house of Zverev - one of the other students was constantly practicing on the piano - there was a break between him and his patron, and as a result Varvara Satina, his father's sister, took him to live. Their sons and daughters, of the same age as Rachmaninoff, got along well with the new guest (he and Natalja later married).

Siloti's decision to give up teaching at the Moscow Conservatory because of internal conflicts encouraged Rachmaninov to complete his studies immediately. In the final exam in piano in May 1891 he played, among others, Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata and the Sonata in B flat minor by Chopin . In the subject of composition he was given the task of writing a one-act opera - this is how Aleko was born , a story in the “ gypsy milieu ” with love, passion and death in the style of the Cavalleria rusticana . The examination committee was so enthusiastic about the result that they awarded it the “Great Gold Medal” for it. First performed on April 27, 1893 in the Bolshoi Theater , the opera earned him not only great media coverage, but also invitations from abroad.

First successes and self-doubt

Even before Aleko , Rachmaninoff had composed the 1st Piano Concerto in F sharp minor , to which he gave the opus number 1. In March 1892 he played the first movement as part of a conservatory concert and thus sparked storms of enthusiasm. In the summer of 1893 he completed the symphonic poem The Rock and the Suite for Two Pianos, Op. 5, dedicated to his great role model Pyotr Tchaikovsky . Tchaikovsky felt honored, joked that he had created “only a small symphony” that summer (it was the Pathétique ), and agreed to attend a performance in the fall. But because of Tchaikovsky's sudden death, it never happened again. Shaken by this news, Rachmaninoff composed the Trio élégiaque No. 2 - “dedicated to the memory of a great artist”.

The success led Rachmaninoff to a lavish lifestyle that quickly drained his reserves. In Karl Gutheil he had a loyal publisher in Moscow who published everything Rachmaninoff wrote, but his financial problems worsened. He tried to give piano lessons on the side, but was pedagogically unskilled. Because he hated traveling, he broke off a concert tour through several cities in Russia, although this could have been profitable. At the same time, his Symphony No. 1 in D minor fell through with critics and audiences alike: premiered on March 15, 1897 in Saint Petersburg under the direction of Alexander Glasunow , the work met with rejection from the audience, and the critic César Cui felt like it Listening to a symphony program on the subject of “Seven Egyptian Plagues” reminds you. Glazunov, who disliked either Rachmaninoff or his Symphony No. 1, later admitted in private that he conducted the work at the premiere when he was drunk. Rachmaninoff, who was not exactly cheerful by himself, but rather had a tendency to melancholy, fell through the devastating criticism into a deep creative crisis and subsequent depression, which was intensified by Leo Tolstoy's negative attitude towards his music during a private concert. He no longer composed, but instead worked temporarily as a conductor at the Moscow Russian Private Opera. The Satin family eventually managed to persuade him to seek medical treatment.

Rachmaninoff found help from one of the Russian pioneers in the field of psychiatry, Nikolai Dahl , who managed to restore his self-confidence to him. Dahl used hypnosis to treat his famous patient . Rachmaninoff later wrote about this:

“I heard the same hypnotic formulas repeated day after day while I was asleep in Dahl's treatment room. 'You will write your concert… You will work with great ease… The concert will be of excellent quality…' It was always the same words, without interruption. While it may seem incredible, this therapy really helped me. I started composing in the summer. The material grew and new musical ideas began to stir in me. "

Rachmaninoff began working on his 2nd Piano Concerto op. 18 in C minor , which is one of the most famous concerts of the Romantic period today , and dedicated it to his doctor out of gratitude. Initially, the 2nd and 3rd movements were completed, and Rachmaninoff played them in front of an audience in autumn 1900. He then quickly composed the first movement. On October 27, 1901, the entire work was premiered under the direction of Alexander Siloti and with Rachmaninov on the piano.

Marriage and engagement at the Bolshoi Theater

On April 29, 1902, Rachmaninoff married his cousin Natalia Alexandrovna Satina. She had been a piano student at the Moscow Conservatory, understood his desire to develop as a composer and supported him as much as possible. The daughters Irina and Tatiana emerged from the marriage.

In 1904, Rachmaninoff accepted a new challenge: he became a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater . This activity should last two years. Under his leadership, new rules were immediately introduced: the conductor's desk, which his predecessors - for whatever reason - had placed next to the prompter's box , was moved back into the orchestra pit. He also decreed that instrument groups did not simply “dive into” during a performance if they had nothing to do for longer passages - this particularly affected the brass, who liked to leave the orchestra pit when they were not in use. With his crackdown, Rachmaninoff was successful, and the reviews of his performances have been very positive in the press:

“One can say that with Rachmaninov's direction of the Bolshoi Orchestra, a new spirit immediately blew and that what we only dared to dream of in our reviews is about to come true. […] We will of course follow all of Rachmaninoff's new steps in the career of the opera conductor with the greatest interest, because his work promises our stage a lot of good. "

Stays in Dresden

From 1906 and in the two following years, the Rachmaninow family spent the winter months in Dresden . Rachmaninov paid tribute to the musical capital of the city and the region in general, combining work on new compositions with visits to the Semperoper and the Leipzig Gewandhaus . At Trachenberger Platz, he bought a large apartment building, for which he was registered as the owner, residence: New York, until the 1990s.

In Dresden he composed the 2nd Symphony, Op. 27 , the 1st Piano Sonata, Op. 28, and the symphonic poem Die Toteninsel, Op. 29. He had seen the painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin as a black and white print; when he later saw the original, he noted: “I wasn't particularly moved by the color of the painting. If I had seen the original first, I might not have written Die Toteninsel . ”The piano sonata was also based on a conceptual“ program ”, but Rachmaninoff expressly did not want it to be understood as program music. The inspiration comes from Goethe's Faust , Rachmaninoff had Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles in mind for the individual themes of the sonata movements.

USA tour


In 1909 Rachmaninoff returned permanently to Russia, he followed a call as vice-president and conductor of the Russian Music Society. In the same year he prepared intensively for a tour of the United States . For this purpose he composed his 3rd Piano Concerto in D minor , a concerto that has achieved as much popularity as the second. Even Rachmaninoff was uneasy about the exorbitant virtuosity of this concert; on the crossing to America he was still practicing it with the help of a silent keyboard . His performances in the USA were a success, even if he was personally disappointed in the American audience and could not understand that they reduced him to the composer of the famous C sharp minor prelude (a piano piece, incidentally, of which Rachmaninoff financially had nothing because he had not had the copyrights secured).

Confrontation with critics and Alexander Scriabin

In 1910 the Russian music scene began to split. A group around the composer Alexander Scriabin propagated new ways of tonality and beyond. Rachmaninoff couldn't get anything out of it. The fronts hardened among the music critics as well. Vyacheslav Karatygin wrote of Rachmaninoff : "The audience adores Rachmaninoff because he meets the average philistine taste."

Rachmaninoff has often been criticized for sticking to the tradition of a tonal compositional style throughout his life. Many referred to him as the "last romantic". Supporters and defenders of the " Schönberg School ", especially Theodor W. Adorno , have often criticized Rachmaninoff's works with devastating criticism. Adorno sees the c sharp minor prelude as a striking showpiece with which amateurs can simulate strength and virtuosity. “The prelude for infantile adults records this children's triumph” (Musical Product Analysis). Even composers who continued to compose predominantly in a more or less expanded or self-interpreted form of tonality , such as B. Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss , were critical of Rachmaninoff's music.

Alexander Scriabin, photo taken around 1900

Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin , both of almost the same age, had known each other since they were at the conservatory. They weren't good friends, but neither were they enemies. With the innovations in terms of tonality , however, they increasingly became competitors. Mutual provocations were inevitable. For example, Scriabin is said to have gotten willfully drunk before a joint performance of his own piano concerto to check the state of Rachmaninov's conducting skills when Scriabin could no longer play the piano correctly and even forgot passages. Conversely, Rachmaninoff made fun of Scriabin's modern conception of music. During a discussion with the publisher, he came across the as yet unpublished score of Prometheus (the orchestral work includes a color piano invented by Scriabin ), immediately sat down at the piano with the notes and began to play, stopped suddenly and asked the Scriabin who was present sharply what color it is at this point. Scriabin did not feel understood and was extremely irritated.

Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff was deeply affected by Scriabin's early death in 1915 and played an entire tour of Scriabin's works. When he interpreted Scriabin's piano pieces, even non-followers of the Scriabin camp pondered. The composer Anatoly Alexandrov later recalled:

“The only time that Rachmaninov's playing did not satisfy me was the concert with works by Scriabin […]. There were happy moments in the concert, such as the brilliant interpretation of the F sharp minor prelude op. 11 [...]. However, the reproduction of the larger works that the program contained [...] seemed strange to me and in no way reproduced the spirit of Scriabin. "

Exile in the United States and Switzerland

Rachmaninov, portrayed by Konstantin Somow (1925)

With the beginning of the First World War , Russia was cut off from Europe. Rachmaninov's tours through Europe came to an abrupt end, he only gave concerts in Russia. The inflation dominated life. When Rachmaninov and his family fled to the Ivanovka estate near Uvarowo in what was then the Tambov governorate (the property was married to his wife; now the Rachmaninov Museum ), there were already serious rumors of violence against landowners. The Rachmaninoffs spent the turmoil of the October Revolution in Moscow, terrified. When Rachmaninov received an invitation to perform in a concert in Sweden , he did not hesitate for a second. He left Russia with his family before Christmas 1917. At the time, he didn't know that it should be forever.

After appearances in Sweden and Denmark , Rachmaninoff received several offers as a conductor in the USA. But he decided against a compulsory salaried position and free work as a pianist. He became one of the most sought-after and best-paid piano virtuosos of his time. Other Russians such as B. Siloti had tried in vain to gain a foothold in America, and Rachmaninoff was celebrated as a star. He has not acclimatized. Like many exiles, he lived with his family in seclusion, and his English remained poor. His financial circumstances allowed him a luxurious lifestyle, and all of the domestic servants were Russian. It was not until the year he died that Rachmaninoff acquired American citizenship, motivated by the desire to spare his family problems with inheritance matters.

Rachmaninov's compositional activity had initially come to a complete standstill with his exile from 1917; the inspiration of Russia was lacking. The last major work to be written there was the second volume of the Etudes-tableaux op. 39 (1916). From 1919 to 1925 he composed only a few shorter arrangements of other works, the best known are Liebesleid and Liebesfreud according to Fritz Kreisler . The 4th Piano Concerto, Op. 40 , was written from 1925 to 1928, but it could be based on sketches that had already been made on Ivanovka in 1914. The three orchestral songs op. 41 (1926) also did not contain any new themes of their own, as they are based on Russian folk songs.

Because it was so difficult for them to say goodbye to the rural idyll on Ivanovka, to say goodbye to European customs, the Rachmaninoffs longed to return to old Europe. Finally, in 1930, Rachmaninow acquired a riverside property in Switzerland in Hertenstein LU in the municipality of Weggis on Lake Lucerne . He called the villa that he had built there ( location ) Senar (= Se rgej + Na talja R achmaninow). Rachmaninoff spent many summer months there and finally found his way back to composing. Initially two variations on foreign themes were created by Corelli (op. 42, 1931) and Paganini (op. 43, 1934) . In the latter work in particular, the typical Rachmaninoff melodic inventiveness can be found again, which culminates in the 18th variation. The success of this work with the audience encouraged Rachmaninoff to venture into his Third Symphony (1935/36). Rachmaninoff's lukewarm reception (in contrast to his first symphony decades earlier) no longer frightened him:

“Your reception by audiences and critics was sour. One review is particularly heavy on my stomach: that I no longer have a 3rd symphony in me. Personally, I firmly believe that this is a good work. But sometimes composers are also wrong. So far I am sticking to my opinion. "

Last stations

Rachmaninoff's grave in Valhalla

Finally he also lost his new Swiss homeland with the beginning of World War II . His last work was written in 1940 in Huntington on Long Island , the symphonic dances . This work with its originally autobiographical program was to be Rachmaninoff's last; in the last three years of his life he only arranged one Tchaikovsky lullaby for piano and again his 4th piano concerto.

In 1942, Rachmaninoff purchased property in Beverly Hills at 610 Elm Drive. The concert tours in the 1930s had left their mark on him, even more so on his cigarette consumption. The end came quickly, with Rachmaninoff dying of cancer shortly before his 70th birthday. His wish to be buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow - Dmitri Shostakovich , Alexander Scriabin , Sergei Taneyev and Anton Chekhov are also lying there  - did not come true. He found his final resting place in the Kensico cemetery in Valhalla (New York) , as requested by his wife and daughter. In 2015, Russia's Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky, made another attempt to have the urn transferred to the Rachmaninov memorial in Novgorod.

The media skeptic

Rachmaninoff with a recording, 1921

During Rachmaninov's lifetime there were already many technical possibilities to preserve his work as a musician through records. Rachmaninoff, however, was suspicious of this:

"In my opinion, broadcasting has a bad influence on art: it is designed to drive all life and righteousness out of it."

With vinyl recordings, on the other hand, the perfectionist feared that imperfections might be captured. He noted:

“I get very nervous with recordings. [...] When the screen tests are done, I know I can let them go back and then everything will be fine. But when the final recording is due and I realize that this result should be sufficient and permanent, I get nervous and my hands start to tense. "

Rachmaninoff was one of the last representatives of a centuries-old tradition. Until the late 19th century, (most) composers were equally important virtuosos of their time. Rachmaninoff was one of the last to exercise this dual function (actually it was even a triple function: composer, pianist, conductor). He was the first and last of his guild who left a relatively extensive testimony of his pianistic skills on sound carriers. The first recordings (for Edison Records) were made in 1919, the last (for RCA Victor ) were made in 1942.

The number of recordings he made is considerable, there are at least 10 CDs on which his brilliant skills as a musician are passed down to posterity today. In addition, between 1919 and 1929 he also recorded around 35 shorter (his own and third-party) works for music roles for the Ampico company . These were partly recorded according to the information on the official website of the US American Pianola Institute for the reproducing Piano Ampico (AMerican PIano COmpany) in 1979 with a reproduction grand piano from the Estonian company Estonia (Tallinn) and under the title Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov from the DECCA record label in 1980 as vinyl -LP and released on CD in 1991, so that Rachmaninov's playing has been handed down in today's sound and without the typical background noise of conventional mechanical reproduction pianos . In 1996, the record label TELARC produced with 20-bit technology, the recording on a SE290 -Computerflügel of Bösendorfer , the 1998 CD entitled A Window in Time, Vol. 1 was released. The currently latest DSD reproduction recording was made in 2009 with a Steinway grand by the Zenph Studio and released on CD by the record label RCA Red Seal (Sony) under the title Rachmaninoff plays Rachmaninoff .

Rachmaninoff was a more sober and matter-of-fact interpreter than one might expect from today's often romanticized reception of his works. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, who were still clinging to the romantic-mannered idiom of the musical conception, Rachmaninoff interpreted his own and other works in a very modern way in a certain way.

Influence on popular music

A motif from the middle movement (Adagio sostenuto) of the 2nd piano concerto was used by Eric Carmen in his song All By Myself .

The influence of Rachmaninoff's work (especially his second and third piano concerto) is in the songs Space Dementia, Blackout and Butterflies and Hurricanes by Muse to hear.


  • Sergei Wassiljewitsch Rachmaninow was immortalized on a modern Russian coin (made of gold).
  • The asteroid (4345) Rachmaninoff was named after the composer.
  • The pianist Lars David Kellner has described a species of snail that is new to science and named it in honor of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
  • The Rachmaninoff Glacier on Alexander I Island in Antarctica has been named after him since 1987 .


Symphonic works

Clay seals

  • Prince Rostislaw, without op., Based on the ballad of the same name by AK Tolstoy
  • The rock , op.7
  • Capriccio on ways of gypsies, op.12
  • Die Toteninsel , op.29 (after Arnold Böcklin )
  • The bells, op.35

Piano concerts

Chamber music

  • Piano Trio No. 1 in G minor, "Trio élégiaque"
  • Two pieces for violoncello and piano, op.2
  • Two salon pieces for violin and piano, op.6
  • Piano trio No. 2 in D minor, op. 9, “Trio élégiaque”, composed in 1893 on the occasion of the death of Peter Tchaikovsky
  • Sonata for violoncello and piano in G minor, op.19
  • Vocalise for violoncello and piano after op.34 no.14
  • Two string quartets (without op.) In G minor
  • Melody for violoncello and piano in D major
  • Song for violoncello and piano in F minor
  • Romance for violoncello and piano in F sharp minor

Piano music

For piano solo

For piano four hands

  • 6 pieces for piano four hands, op.11
  • Works without opus: Romance in G major or op. (1893); Italian Polka (1906)

For piano six hands

  • Waltz and romance in A major without opus number, composed for his cousins ​​in 1890/91

For 2 pianos

  • 2 suites for two pianos, opp. 5 & ​​17
  • Works without an opus number: Russian Rhapsody (1891); Romance in G major (1893)


Secular and sacred choral works with and without orchestra

  • Spring , cantata for baritone, choir and orchestra, op.20
  • Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom , op.31
  • Die Glocken (after Edgar Allan Poe , in a repositioning by Konstantin Balmont ) for solo voices, choir and orchestra, op.35
  • The great evening and morning praise, op.37 (also all-night vigil or vespers )
  • Three Russian folk songs for choir and orchestra, op.41


Rachmaninoff's extensive song compositions are an insider tip in Germany, which hide a wealth of harmonious inventiveness behind an initially inaccessible language. In addition to the popular Vocalise from op. 34, Не пой, красавица! and Ночь печальна most often sung.

  • Songs op.4, op.8, op.14, op.21, op.26, op.34, op.38.


  • Ewald Reder: Sergej Rachmaninow. Life and Work (1873–1943). 3rd, revised edition. TRIGA, Gelnhausen 2007, ISBN 3-89774-486-4 (biography; with a comprehensive catalog of works and repertoire).
  • Andreas Wehrmeyer: Sergej Rachmaninow (= rororo monograph. 50416). Rowohlt-Verlag, Reinbek 2000, ISBN 3-499-50416-2 .
  • Maria Biesold: Sergej Rachmaninoff 1873–1943. Between Moscow and New York. An artist biography. Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-88679-215-3 .
  • Fritz Butzbach: Studies for the Piano Concerto No. 1. Cologne 1979.
  • Claudio A. D'Antoni: Rachmaninov - Personalità e poetica. Bardi Editore, Rome 2003, ISBN 88-88620-06-0 , p. 400.
  • Claudio A. D'Antoni: Dinamica rappresentativa del 'suono-parola' - La 'drammaturgia compressa' delle Romance di Rachmaninov. Rome 2009, OCLC 948839712 , p. 480.
  • Max Harrison : Rachmaninoff: life, works, recordings. Continuum, London [u. a.] 2007, ISBN 978-0-8264-9312-5 .

Web links

Commons : Sergei Wassiljewitsch Rachmaninow  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual references and comments

  1. ^ Maria Biesold: Sergej Rachmaninoff 1873-1943. Between Moscow and New York. An artist biography. Berlin 1999, pp. 121-122.
  2. Jane Jannke: A romanticist of classical music: In the footsteps of Sergej Rachmaninoff in Dresden. In:, accessed on October 20, 2018.
  3. Schönberg had quite a few students who followed his compositional principles more or less strictly. However, there is no established technical term “Schönberg School”. In addition, even according to his own statements, despite Schönberg's propagation of twelve-tone technique as the compositional principle of the future, it was not his intention to establish a “school” that strictly followed his method of twelve-tone composition.
  4. Sergei Rachmaninow: Воспоминания (memories), Moscow 1992, p. 176. quoted in Michail Ryklin : Life, thrown into fire . Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin, 2019, p. 54.
  5. ^ Max Harrison: Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings. London / New York 2005, p. 253; Gregory Norris: Rachmaninoff. New York 1993, p. 60.
  6. ^ Letter to Vladimir Wilshaw 1937; Translated from Barrie Martyn: Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor. Aldershot 1990, p. 343.
  7. ^ Elke Windisch: Fetching home from New York. A Russian grave for Sergei Rachmaninov. In: Der Tagesspiegel . August 22, 2015, p. 24.
  8. ^ A Window in Time. 2 single CDs; Telarc Records.