Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873 – March 28, 1943) was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer of what became known as the late Romantic period. Some of his works, including my personal favorite the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, are among the most popular in the romantic, classical repertoire.
Rachmaninoff was born into a musical family and began to play the piano at age four. His father, Vasily Rachmaninoff, was an army officer and an amateur pianist who married Lyubov Petrovna Butakova, the daughter of a wealthy army general who gave her five estates as part of her dowry. The couple had three sons and three daughters and Sergei Rachmaninoff was their fourth child.
Rachmaninoff was born in Novgorod Oblast in north-western Russia and was raised in Oneg until the age of nine. His first piano and music lessons were organised by his mother after she noticed he could recite passages from memory without playing a wrong note. She hired Anna Ornatskaya, a teacher and recent graduate of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, to live with the family and begin formal teaching. Rachmaninoff dedicated his piano composition “Spring Waters” from 12 Romances, Op. 14 to his first music teacher, Ornatskaya.
Rachmaninoff described his father as “a wastrel, a compulsive gambler, a pathological liar, and a skirt chaser”, and by 1882, the family’s five estates had been reduced to one due to his financial incompetence. The family then moved to a small flat in Saint Petersburg.
In 1883, Ornatskaya arranged for Rachmaninoff, now ten, to study music at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Later that year, his sister Sofia died of diphtheria and his father left the family for Moscow. His maternal grandmother stepped in to help raise the children with particular focus on their spiritual life, regularly taking Rachmaninoff to Russian Orthodox Church services where he first experienced liturgical chants and church bells, two features he would incorporate in his future compositions.
In 1885, Rachmaninoff suffered further loss when his sister Yelena died at eighteen of pernicious anaemia, shortly prior to her training as an opera singer at the Bolshoi opera company. She was an important musical influence to Rachmaninoff who had introduced him to the works of Tchaikovsky. As a respite, his grandmother took him to a farm retreat by the Volkhov River where Rachmaninoff developed a love for rowing. At the Conservatory, however, he had adopted a relaxed attitude and failed his general education classes and purposefully altered his report cards in what Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called a period of “purely Russian self-delusion and laziness”. Rachmaninoff performed at events held at the Moscow Conservatory during this time, including those attended by the Grand Duke Konstantin and other notable figures, but upon failing his spring exams Ornatskaya notified his mother that his admission to further education may be revoked. His mother then consulted with Alexander Siloti, her nephew and an accomplished pianist and student of Franz Liszt, who recommended he be transferred to the Moscow Conservatory and receive lessons from his former teacher, the stricter Nikolai Zverev, which lasted until 1888.
By the time he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, in 1892, he had already composed several piano and orchestral pieces. But in 1897, following the highly critical reaction to his Symphony No. 1, Rachmaninoff went into a four-year depression and during this composed very little. After receiving therapy he managed to complete his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1901 and this was enthusiastically received.
After the Russian Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family moved from Russia to New York City in the United States. Between 1918 and 1943 he had very demanding piano concert tour schedules which meant his output as composer slowed tremendously. In fact he only completed six compositions in this time, including Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances.
In the autumn of 1885, Rachmaninoff moved in with Zverev and stayed for almost four years, during which he befriended fellow pupil Alexander Scriabin. After two years of tuition, the fifteen year old Rachmaninoff was awarded a Rubenstein scholarship, and graduated from the lower division of the Conservatory to become a pupil of Siloti in advanced piano, Sergei Taneyev in counterpoint, and Anton Arensky in free composition. In 1889, a rift formed between Rachmaninoff and Zverev, now his adviser, after Zverev disagreed with the composer’s request for assistance in renting a piano and greater privacy to compose. Zverev, who believed composition was a waste for talented pianists, refused to speak to Rachmaninoff for some time and organised for him to live with his uncle and aunt Satin and their family in Moscow. Rachmaninoff then found his first romance in Vera, the youngest daughter of the neighbouring Skalon family, but her mother objected and forbade Rachmaninoff to write to her, leaving him to correspond with her older sister Natalia. It is from these letters that many of Rachmaninoff’s earliest compositions can be traced.
Rachmaninoff spent his summer break in 1890 with the Satins at Ivanovka, their private country estate near Tambov, to which the composer would return many times until 1917. The peaceful and bucolic surroundings became a source of inspiration for the composer who completed many compositions while at the estate, including his Op. 1, the Piano Concerto No. 1, in July 1891, which he dedicated to Siloti. Also that year, Rachmaninoff completed the one-movement Youth Symphony and the symphonic poem Prince Rostislav. Siloti left the Moscow Conservatory after the academic year ended in 1891 and Rachmaninoff asked to take his final piano exams a year early to avoid being assigned a different teacher. Despite little faith from Siloti and Conservatory director Vasily Safonov as he had just three weeks preparation, Rachmaninoff received assistance from a recent graduate who was familiar with the test, and passed each one with honours in July 1891. Three days later, he passed his annual theory and composition exams. Progress was unexpectedly halted in the latter half of 1891 when he contracted a severe case of malaria during his summer break at Ivankova.
During his final year at the Conservatory, Rachmaninoff performed his first independent concert where he premiered his Trio élégiaque No. 1 in February 1892, followed by a performance of the first movement of his Piano Concerto No. 1 a month later. His request to take his final theory and composition exams a year early was also granted, for which he wrote Aleko, a one-act opera based on the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, in seventeen days. It premiered in May 1892 at the Bolshoi Theatre which Tchaikovsky attended and praised Rachmaninoff for his work. Rachmaninoff believed it was “sure to fail”, but the production was so successful the theatre agreed to produce it starring singer Feodor Chaliapin who would become a lifelong friend. Aleko earned Rachmaninoff the highest mark at the Conservatory and a Great Gold Medal, a distinction only previously awarded to Taneyev and Arseny Koreshchenko. Zverev, a member of the exam committee, gave the composer his gold watch, thus ending years of estrangement. On 29 May 1892, the Conservatory issued Rachmaninoff with a diploma which allowed him to officially style himself as a “Free Artist”.
Upon graduating, Rachmaninoff continued to compose and signed a 500-rouble publishing contract with Gutheil, with Aleko, Two Pieces (Op. 2) and Six Songs (Op. 4) among the first published. The composer had previously earned 15 roubles a month in giving piano lessons. He spent the summer of 1892 on the estate of Ivan Konavalov, a rich landowner in the Kostroma Oblast, and moved back with the Satins in the Arbat District. Delays in getting paid by Gutheil saw Rachmaninoff seeking other sources of income which led to an engagement at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition in September 1892, his public debut as a pianist, where he premiered his landmark Prelude in C-sharp minor from his five-part piano composition piece Morceaux de fantaisie (Op. 3). He was paid 50 roubles for his appearance. It was well received and became one of his most enduring pieces. In 1893, he completed his tone poem The Rock, dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov.
In 1893, Rachmaninoff spent a productive summer with friends at an estate in Kharkiv Oblast where he composed several pieces, including Fantaisie-Tableaux (aka Suite No. 1, Op. 5) and Morceaux de salon (Op. 10). In September, he published Six Songs (Op. 8), a group of songs set to translations by Aleksey Pleshcheyev of Ukrainian and German poems. Rachmaninoff returned to Moscow, where Tchaikovsky agreed to conduct The Rock for an upcoming European tour. During his subsequent trip to Kiev to conduct performances of Aleko, he learned of Tchaikovsky’s death from cholera. The news left Rachmaninoff stunned; later that day, he started work on his Trio élégiaque No. 2 for piano, violin and cello as a tribute which he completed within a month. The music’s aura of gloom reveals the depth and sincerity of Rachmaninoff’s grief for his idol. The piece debuted at the first concert devoted to Rachmaninoff’s compositions on 31 January 1894.
Rachmaninoff entered a decline following Tchaikovsky’s death. He lacked the inspiration to compose, and management of the Grand Theatre had lost interest in showcasing Aleko and dropped the opera from the program. To earn more money, Rachmaninoff returned to giving piano lessons, and in late 1895, Rachmaninoff agreed to a three-month tour across Russia with a program shared by Italian violinist Teresina Tua. The tour was not enjoyable for the composer and he quit before it ended, thus sacrificing his performance fees. In a more desperate plea for money, Rachmaninoff pawned his gold watch given to him by Zverev. In September 1895, before the tour started, Rachmaninoff completed his Symphony No. 1 (Op. 13), a work conceived in January and based on chants he had heard in Russian Orthodox Church services. Rachmaninoff had worked so hard on it that he could not return to composition until he heard the piece performed. This lasted until October 1896, when “a rather large sum of money” that was not his was stolen from Rachmaninoff during a train journey and he had to work to recoup the losses. Among the pieces composed were Six Choruses (Op. 15) and Six moments musicaux (Op. 16), his final completed composition for several months.
Rachmaninoff’s fortunes took a turn following the premiere of his Symphony No. 1 on 28 March 1897 in one of a long-running series of Russian Symphony Concerts devoted Russian music. The piece was brutally panned by critic and nationalist composer César Cui, who likened it to a depiction of the ten plagues of Egypt, suggesting it would be admired by the “inmates” of a music conservatory in Hell. The deficiencies of the performance, conducted by Alexander Glazunov, were not commented on by critics, but according to a memoir from Alexander Ossovsky, a close friend of Rachmaninoff, Glazunov made poor use of rehearsal time, and the concert’s program itself, which contained two other premières, was also a factor. Other witnesses suggested that Glazunov, an alcoholic, may have been drunk, although this was never intimated by Rachmaninoff. Following the reaction to his first symphony, Rachmaninoff wrote in May 1897 that “I’m not at all affected” by its lack of success or critical reaction, but felt “deeply distressed and heavily depressed by the fact that my Symphony … did not please me at all after its first rehearsal.” He thought its performance was poor, particularly Glazunov’s contribution. The piece was not performed for the rest of Rachmaninoff’s life, but he revised it into a four-hand piano arrangement in 1898.
Rachmaninoff fell into a depression that lasted for three years, during which he had writer’s block and composed almost nothing. He described this time as “Like the man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands”. He made a living by giving piano lessons. A stroke of good fortune came from Savva Mamontov, a Russian industrialist and founder of the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company, who offered Rachmaninoff the post of assistant conductor for the 1897–98 season. The cash-strapped composer accepted, conducting Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns as his first on 12 October 1897. By the end of February 1899, Rachmaninoff attempted composition and completed two short piano pieces, Morceau de Fantaisie and Fughetta in F major. Two months later, he travelled to London for the first time to perform and conduct, earning positive reviews.
During his time conducting in Moscow, Rachmaninoff became engaged to Natalia Satina. However, the Russian Orthodox Church and Satina’s parents opposed their announcement, thwarting their plans for marriage. Rachmaninoff’s depression worsened in late 1899 following an unproductive summer; he composed one song, “Fate”, which later made up his Twelve Songs (Op. 21), and left compositions for a proposed return visit to London unfulfilled. In an attempt to revive his desire to compose, his aunt arranged for the writer Leo Tolstoy, whom Rachmaninoff greatly admired, to have the composer visit his home and receive words of encouragement. The visit was unsuccessful, doing nothing to help him compose with the fluency he had before.
By 1900, Rachmaninoff had become so self-critical that, despite numerous attempts, composing had become near impossible. His aunt then suggested professional help, having received successful treatment from a family friend, physician and amateur musician Nikolai Dahl, to which Rachmaninoff agreed without resistance. Between January and April 1900, Rachmaninoff underwent hypnotherapy and psychotherapy sessions with Dahl on a daily basis, specifically structured to improve his sleep patterns, mood, and appetite and reignite his desire to compose. That summer, Rachmaninoff felt that “new musical ideas began to stir” and successfully resumed composition. His first fully completed work, the Piano Concerto No. 2, was finished in April 1901; it is dedicated to Dahl. After the first and last movement premiered in December 1900 with Rachmaninoff as the soloist, the entire piece was first performed in 1901 and was enthusiastically received. The piece earned the composer a Glinka Award, the first of five awarded to him throughout his life, and a 500-rouble prize in 1904.
Amid his professional career success, Rachmaninoff married Natalia Satina on 12 May 1902, after having been engaged for three years. Because they were first cousins, the marriage was forbidden under a Canon law imposed by the Russian Orthodox Church; in addition, Rachmaninoff was not a regular church attendee and avoided confession, two things a priest would have had to confirm that he did in signing a marriage certificate. To circumvent the church’s opposition, the couple used their military background and organised a small ceremony in a chapel in a Moscow suburb army barracks with Siloti and the cellist Anatoliy Brandukov as best men. They received the smaller of two houses at the Ivanovka estate as a present and went on a three-month honeymoon across Europe. Upon their return, they settled in Moscow, where they had two daughters, Irina Sergeievna Rachmaninova (1903–1969) and Tatiana Sergeievna Rachmaninova (1907–1961). Rachmaninoff resumed work as a music teacher at St. Catherine’s Women’s College and the Elizabeth Institute. By February 1903, he had completed his largest piano composition of his career at the time, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin (Op. 22). Developments on other pieces was disrupted after Natalia, Irina, and he were struck with illness during their summer break at Ivanovka.
In 1904, in a career change, Rachmaninoff agreed to become the conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre for two seasons. He earned a mixed reputation during his time at the post, enforcing strict discipline and demanding high standards of performance. Influenced by Richard Wagner, he pioneered the modern arrangement of the orchestra players in the pit and the modern custom of standing while conducting. He also worked with each soloist on their part, even accompanying them on the piano. The theatre staged the premiere of his operas The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini.
In the course of his second season as conductor, Rachmaninoff lost interest in his post. The social and political unrest surrounding the 1905 Revolution was beginning to affect the performers and theatre staff, who staged protests and demands for improved wages and conditions. Rachmaninoff remained largely uninterested in the politics surrounding him and the revolutionary spirit had made working conditions increasingly difficult. In February 1906, after conducting 50 performances in the first season and 39 in the second, Rachmaninoff handed in his resignation. He then took his family on an extended tour around Italy with the hope of completing new works, but illness struck his wife and daughter, and they returned to Ivanovka. Money soon became an issue following Rachmaninoff’s resignation from his posts at St. Catherine’s and Elizabeth schools, leaving him only the option of composing.
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Increasingly unhappy with the political turmoil in Russia and in need of seclusion from his lively social life to be able to compose, Rachmaninoff with his family left Moscow for Dresden, Germany, in November 1906. The city had become a favourite of both Rachmaninoff and Natalia, presenting them with a more vibrant musical atmosphere and favourable opportunities. The family stayed in Dresden until 1909, only returning to Russia for their summer breaks at Ivanovka. During a visit to Leipzig, he entered an art gallery which housed The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin. The painting served as the inspiration for Rachmaninoff’s orchestral work of the same name, Op. 29. Despite occasional periods of depression, apathy, and little faith in any of his work, Rachmaninoff started on his Symphony No. 2 (Op. 27) in 1906, twelve years after the disastrous premiere of his first. While writing it, Rachmaninoff and the family returned to Russia, but the composer detoured to Paris to take part in Sergei Diaghilev’s season of Russian concerts in May 1907. His performance as the soloist in his Piano Concerto No. 2 with an encore of his Prelude in C-sharp minor was a triumphant success. Rachmaninoff’s sense of self-worth was regained following the enthusiastic reaction to the premiere of his Symphony No. 2 in early 1908, which earned him his second Glinka Award and 1,000 roubles.
While in Dresden, Rachmaninoff agreed to perform and conduct in the United States as part of the 1909–10 concert season with conductor Max Fiedler and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He spent time during breaks at Ivanovka finishing a new piece specially for the visit, his Piano Concerto No. 3 (Op. 30), which he dedicated to Josef Hofmann. The tour saw the composer make 26 performances, 19 as pianist and 7 as conductor, which marked his first recitals without another performer in the program. His first appearance was at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts for a recital on 4 November 1909. The second performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 by the New York Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Gustav Mahler in New York City with the composer as soloist, an experience he personally treasured. The tour increased the composer’s popularity in America yet he declined subsequent offers, including that of conductor of the Boston Symphony, due to the length of time away from Russia and his family.
Upon his return home in February 1910, Rachmaninoff became vice president of the Imperial Russian Musical Society, whose president was a member of the royal family. Later in 1910, Rachmaninoff completed his choral work Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Op. 31), but it was banned from performance as it did not follow the format of a typical liturgical church service. For two seasons between 1911 and 1913, Rachmaninoff was appointed permanent conductor of the Philharmonic Society of Moscow; he helped raise its profile and increase audience numbers and receipts. In 1912, Rachmaninoff left the IRMS when learned that a musician in an administrative post was dismissed for being Jewish. Soon after his resignation an exhausted Rachmaninoff sought a holiday to compose and took his family to Switzerland and Rome, the latter visit becoming a particularly tranquil and influential period for the composer. During his visit he received an anonymous letter that contained a Russian translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Bells by Konstantin Balmont which affected him greatly, and he began work on his same-titled choral symphony, Op. 35, based on it. A period of dedicated composition ended unexpectedly when his daughters contracted serious cases of typhoid and were treated in Berlin due to their father’s lack of trust in the Italian doctors. The family returned to their Moscow flat, and the composer conducted The Bells at its premiere in Saint Petersburg in late 1913.
In January 1914, Rachmaninoff began a concert tour of England which was enthusiastically received. Following the outbreak of war later that year, his position of Inspector of Music at Nobility High School for Girls put him in the group of government servants which prevented him from joining the army, yet the composer made regular charitable donations for the war effort. In 1915, Rachmaninoff completed his second major choral work, All-Night Vigil (Op. 37), after he attended a performance of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and felt disappointed with it. After spending two weeks writing the All-Night Vigil, he passed the score to Sergei Taneyev for proofreading and correcting errors in its polyphony, but it was returned unaltered. It was received so warmly at its Moscow premiere in aid of war relief that four subsequent performances were quickly scheduled.
The early death of Scriabin in 1915 was a tragedy for Rachmaninoff, who went on a piano recital tour devoted to his friend’s compositions to raise funds for Scriabin’s widow. During a vacation in Finland that summer, Rachmaninoff learned of Taneyev’s death, a loss which, along with his father’s passing that year, affected him greatly. By its end he finished his 12 Romances (Op. 34), whose final section, Vocalise, became one of his most popular songs.
On the day the February 1917 Revolution began in Saint Petersburg, Rachmaninoff performed a piano recital in Moscow in aid of wounded Russian soldiers who had fought in the war. He supported the political changes and donated his fee to charity. Following a break spent with his family in the more peaceful Simeiz, Crimea, in August, Rachmaninoff performed at a concert the following month at Yalta. It turned out to be his final performance in Russia. Following the October 1917 Revolution his Ivanovka estate was seized by the Bolshevik regime. Among such political turmoil Rachmaninoff was offered the opportunity to perform ten piano recitals across the more peaceful Scandinavia, which he used as an excuse to quickly obtain permits for his family to leave the country. On 22 December 1917, they left on an open sled, travelling north through Finland to Helsinki with some money, a few notebooks with sketches of compositions, and scores to the first act of his unfinished opera Monna Vanna and Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel. They reached safety in Stockholm, Sweden, and in early 1918 settled in Copenhagen, Denmark, where Rachmaninoff worked as a concert pianist from February to July 1918, practising exhaustively to improve his technique and learning new pieces to play.
With war continuing across Europe, Rachmaninoff considered whether to continue performing and composing or move elsewhere. He then received further offers to become the conductor of the Boston and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras. He declined them, yet the composer saw a move the United States as financially advantageous as he would not earn enough to support his family through composition alone. On 1 November 1918, the family boarded a boat in Oslo, Norway bound for New York City, receiving assistance in the fare by friends and admirers; pianist Ignaz Friedman gave them $2,000. They arrived eleven days later, settling in 505 West End Avenue and Rachmaninoff accepted a piano from Steinway as a gift. Upon Hofmann’s suggestion the composer secured Charles Ellis as his agent who booked him 36 performances in various towns across the season, the first taking place on 8 December. The family recreated the atmosphere of their Ivanovka estate at their new home, entertaining Russian guests, employing Russian servants, and observing Russian customs. Though he could speak some English, his correspondence was translated into Russian. In 1920, Rachmaninoff signed a recording contract with the Victor Talking Machine Company which earned him some much needed income. He became a member of the board of directors for the Tolstoy Foundation Center in Valley Cottage, New York.
In 1925, Rachmaninoff founded TAIR, a publishing company named after his daughters, in Paris that specialised in works by himself and other Russian composers, following the tragic death of the husband of his daughter Tatiana. 1926 marked his return to composition in a considerable time and his Piano Concerto No. 4 was completed in the following year along with Three Russian Songs, which he dedicated to Leopold Stokowski. Rachmaninoff sought the company of fellow Russian musicians and befriended pianist Vladimir Horowitz in 1928. The men remained supportive of each other’s work, each making a point of attending concerts given by the other. Horowitz remained a champion of Rachmaninoff’s solo works and his Piano Concerto No. 3, about which Rachmaninoff remarked publicly after a performance in 1942: “This is the way I always dreamed my concerto should be played, but I never expected to hear it that way on Earth.”
In 1929, conductor and music publisher Serge Koussevitzky asked Rachmaninoff if he would select pieces from his Études-Tableaux for Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate. Rachmaninoff agreed, giving Respighi five pieces from the Études-Tableaux, Op. 33 (1911) and the Études-Tableaux, Op. 39 (1917) and also telling him the inspirations behind the compositions, something that he had not previously revealed. Respighi titled each piece from the clues Rachmaninoff gave him and completed the orchestrations in 1930. During his summers from 1929 to 1931, Rachmaninoff spent his time in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines near Rambouillet, France, meeting with fellow Russian emigres there.
Demanding concert tour schedules caused Rachmaninoff’s output as a composer to slow significantly, so that between his arrival in the US in 1918 and his death in 1943, he completed just six compositions. Clearly his composition time was limited because he had to keep performing to support his family, but also his nostalgia for Russia seemed to dampen his compositional creativity. So demanding was his schedule that he termed his concert season ‘harvest time’, becoming increasingly disillusioned, and entrenched in the idea of his being a failure: ‘I was born a failure and therefore I bear all the burdens that are inseparably part of this status,’ he wrote to Yevgeny Somov in 1923. Despite Rachmaninoff’s concerns, he was lauded by the American public, who loved seeing the famous composer of their favourite Prelude in C-sharp minor.
Some asserted that Rachmaninoff’s music was derivative, perhaps because he was a Romantic at heart and eschewed much of the contemporary revolution in musical thought which was emerging in the early 20th century. Music critic Paul Rosenfeld’s remark that Rachmaninoff’s music ‘wants the imprint of a decided and important individuality,’ can have done nothing to alleviate the composer’s writer’s block.
Rachmaninoff did eventually return to composing in 1932, following the completion of his new home, Villa Senar, near Hertenstein, Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, where he retreated during his summers from 1932 to 1939. In the comfort of his own villa, which reminded him of his old family estate in Russia, Rachmaninoff composed Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934 and Symphony No. 3.
The 1939–40 concert season saw Rachmaninoff perform fewer concerts than usual, totalling 43 appearances that were mostly in the US. His tour included his final shows in England and an appearance at the Lucerne International Music Festival in August 1939, after which he departed a war-torn Europe. On 26 November and 3 December 1939, he performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in New York City with conductor Eugene Ormandy. This was followed by the composer conducting the orchestra for Symphony No. 3 and The Bells on 10 December, his first conducting post since 1917. The concert season left Rachmaninoff tired, despite calling it “rather successful”. In December 1939, Rachmaninoff began an extensive recording period which lasted until February 1942 and included his Piano Concerto Nos. 1 and 3 and Symphony No. 3 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.
In the early 1940s, Rachmaninoff was approached by the makers of the British film Dangerous Moonlight to write a short concerto-like piece for use in the film, but he declined. The job went to Richard Addinsell and the orchestrator Roy Douglas, who came up with the Warsaw Concerto. In May 1940, Rachmaninoff underwent minor surgery which was followed by a summer’s break at Orchard’s Point, an estate near Huntington, New York on Long Island, which was met with a period of anxiety and stress over the concern of his daughter Tatiana following the German takeover in the Battle of France. Rachmaninoff’s last completed work, Symphonic Dances, was the only piece he composed in its entirety while living in the U.S. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered the piece at the Academy of Music on 7 January 1941.
In early 1942, Rachmaninoff was advised by his doctor to relocate to a warmer climate to improve his health after suffering from sclerosis, lumbago, neuralgia, high blood pressure, and headaches. A move to Long Island fell through after the composer and his wife expressed greater interest in California, and initially settled in a leased home on Tower Road in Beverly Hills. Rachmaninoff completed his final studio recording sessions during this time, in February 1942. Four months later, he purchased a home on Elm Drive in Beverly Hills. Later that year, Rachmaninoff was struck with illness during a concert tour and diagnosed with advanced melanoma; his family was informed of the diagnosis but he remained unaware. He then decided the 1942–43 season of concerts was to be his last, after which he would retire from performance due to his increasing fatigue and dedicate his time to composition. On 1 February 1943, Rachmaninoff and Satina became American citizens. Rachmaninoff’s final public performance occurred on 17 February at the Alumni Gymnasium at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. His set for the recital included Piano Sonata No. 2 by Chopin which contains a funeral march. The composer fell increasingly unwell after the performance, forcing him to cancel upcoming dates and return to Los Angeles.
Rachmaninoff died on 28 March 1943, four days before his seventieth birthday. His funeral service took place at the Holy Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church on Micheltorena Street in Silver Lake, where a choir sang his All-Night Vigil. Rachmaninoff had wanted to be buried in Switzerland at Villa Senar, but the conditions of World War II made fulfilling his request impossible. Instead, he was interred at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York on 1 June. A statue marked “Rachmaninoff: The Last Concert”, designed and sculpted by Victor Bokarev, stands at the World’s Fair Park in Knoxville as a tribute.
In August 2015, Russia announced its intentions to seek reburial of Rachmaninoff’s remains in Russia, claiming that Americans have neglected the composer’s grave while attempting to “shamelessly privatize” his name. The composer’s descendants have resisted this idea, pointing out that he died in the U.S. after spending decades outside of Russia in self-imposed political exile.
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