Sergei Rachmaninov


Romantic/20th Century

Sergei Rachmaninov – composer, pianist and conductor – was incredibly tall and looked gloomy. He wrote music that is quite gloomy too, but Rachmaninov’s musical gloom is irresistible. His pieces sweep you up and take you on a journey – sometimes as rocky and heart-stopping as a fairground ride!

He was born into a wealthy family in Russia, and soon wowed his teachers with his piano playing. By the time he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, he had composed several piano and orchestral pieces, in a rich, Romantic style.

In 1893 the great composer Tchaikovsky agreed to conduct a piece by Rachmaninov in a concert but then died before he could do it. Rachmaninov had so admired Tchaikovsky, and he was terribly upset at his death. He didn’t want to compose for a while. Two years later he completed his First Symphony, but was even more depressed when its premiere, conducted by the composer Glazunov, was a disaster. Glazunov had messed it up! So everyone decided it was bad music. For three years Rachmaninov couldn’t write anything. He gave piano lessons instead. Finally, thanks to some therapy, he got going again… and out came his Piano Concerto No. 2. This was not just a stepping-stone to full health: it was a big hit. Rachmaninov was back!

Having started to conduct too, he had a career that combined performing, conducting and composing. He married his cousin Natalia and had two daughters. In 1917, the Russian Revolution caused him to flee Russia with his family; travelling on an open sled to Helsinki, they settled in Denmark for a while before ending up in America. Rachmaninov was welcomed with open arms and became very popular there, though he surrounded himself with Russian friends and dreamt about the lost world he had known as a child. Despite this, the United States was his home until his death in 1943; his funeral took place in a Russian Orthodox Church in California.

Rachmaninov was a big presence and a big talent. His music continues to satisfy (and frighten!) many a pianist, and to touch the hearts of millions.

Sergei Rachmaninov, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Rachmaninov’s music is here for you to try…

Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2

This piece became so famous, Rachmaninov began to wish he’d never written it! It is the second in a set of five pieces called Morceaux de fantaisie, which he wrote when he was 19.

Performers: Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570327

All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (‘Vespers’): 6. Troparion for the Virgin Mary (‘Bogoroditse Devo’)

Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil (his ‘Vespers’) sets texts from the Russian Orthodox ‘all-night vigil’ ceremony. Choirs often perform this movement – ‘Bogorditse Devo’ (‘Rejoice, O Virgin’) – on its own by choirs. Listen to how smooth, sustained and restful it is.

Performers: Finnish National Opera Chorus; Eric-Olof Söderström

Taken from Naxos 8.555908

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43: Variation 18

This ‘variation’ is one of classical music’s great tunes! Rachmaninov wrote the whole work at his summer home in Switzerland in 1934, and it is based on a theme that the brilliant violinist Paganini had written in 1817. Sit back and relax…

Performers: Bernd Glemser, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.552113-14

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Rachmaninov was noted for what?

a. A smiling face
b. Wearing a kilt
c. Large hands

 Rachmaninov wrote how many symphonies?

a. 10
b. 3
c. 104

 Rachmaninov left Russia to settle in which country?

a. England
b. America
c. France

 Which famous pianist became close friends with Rachmaninov and often played his works?

a. Sviatoslav Richter
b. Oscar Peterson
c. Vladimir Horowitz

 On whose music did Rachmaninov base his famous set of variations?

a. Prokofiev
b. Poulenc
c. Paganini

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Rachmaninov had enormous hands: he could easily play huge chords on the piano.
  2. Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto features in the Australian film Shine, about a pianist who suffers a mental breakdown.
  3. The first performance of Rachmaninov’s First Symphony was a disaster, mostly because Alexander Glazunov made a mess of conducting it. Some say he was drunk!
  4.  Rachmaninov idolised Tchaikovsky and was very upset when he died.
  5. When he was a boy, Rachmaninov was taken to Russian Orthodox Church services by his grandmother. The sound of the liturgical chants and church bells can be heard in music he wrote years later.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Piano Works

10 Preludes, Op. 23

Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Op. 23, are short works but quite complicated. They are one of the pinnacles of the Romantic style and sound, somehow, very Russian. The sound of church bells is never far away.

Performers: Eldar Nebolsin, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.570327

Études-tableaux, Op. 39

Technically demanding works, these are more complicated than the preludes. Rachmaninov wrote them just before the Russian Revolution of 1917. Perhaps you can hear some turbulence and upheaval in the music? It was a frightening time in Russia.

Performers: Boris Giltburg, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.573469

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (1931 version)

A big, Romantic sonata, this is very difficult to play. The three movements are joined by ‘bridges’ so they seem to run into each other. Rachmaninov wrote it in 1913 but wasn’t happy with it. In 1931 he made it shorter and simpler – although it still doesn’t sound very simple!

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554669

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

This Piano Concerto was written after a hypnotist, Dr Dahl, talked Rachmaninov out of a deep depression. It is now one of the most popular piano concertos of all. It has been used in films – most famously of all in a classic, black-and-white British film called Brief Encounter.

Performers: Idil Biret, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.554376

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

Fiendishly difficult for the pianist, this indulgently Romantic concerto is full of enormous chords – suited to Rachmaninov’s big hands. It is music that tries to prod your feelings and emotions from the very first bar. It surges forward, and sweeps you up in a giant musical wave!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.554376

Orchestral Works

Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27

Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony is a dark and brooding work. He wrote it between 1906 and 1907 in Dresden, where he was living with his family to escape political turmoil in Russia. It was an immediate success, which helped to wipe out memories of the disastrous reception of his First Symphony. He felt worthwhile again! It contains some of this finest, most memorable music: listen to the long, mournful clarinet solo at the beginning of the third movement (track 3).

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Stephen Gunzenhauser

Taken from Naxos 8.550272

Isle of the Dead, Op. 29

In 1909 Rachmaninov was in Paris and was struck by seeing a black-and-white reproduction of a painting by Arnold Böcklin called Isle of the Dead. (Funnily enough, when he later saw the real thing, in colour, he was disappointed – he liked it in black and white!) So he wrote this piece to describe it. The music builds and builds, as we travel to the isle – the repeating phrases in the music are like the oars in the water, again and again. And although the theme is death, there is such life to this music – a rhythm that makes it breathe!

Performers: Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.573234

Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

This three-movement orchestral suite is Rachmaninov’s last completed work. It has a real rhythmic energy, and can feel invigorating to listen to. With shifting harmonies, orchestral colour and hints of church music, it is typical Rachmaninov and it brought his life’s work to a splendid conclusion!

Performers: Detroit Symphony Orchestra; Leonard Slatkin

Taken from Naxos 8.573051

The Rock (Utyos), Op. 7

Rachmaninov’s The Rock is an early work, springing partly from a poem by Mikhail Lermontov and partly from a story by Anton Chekhov. Tchaikovsky – a composer Rachmaninov so admired – listened to Rachmaninov playing through the score at the piano; he liked it so much that he asked permission to conduct the work in a forthcoming concert. Alas, he died before he was able to.

Performers: Ireland National Symphony Orchestra; Alexander Anissimov

Taken from Naxos 8.550805

Other Works

All-Night Vigil, Op. 37 (‘Vespers’) (excerpts)

Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil is a choral setting of some of the Russian Orthodox Church’s ‘all-night vigil’ ceremony. He was not a church-goer, but he was taken to services by his grandmother when he was a boy, and the chants and bells found their way into much of his music. The full work is an hour of unaccompanied choral music that can leave you feeling deeply moved – sometimes performances are given in candlelight in a church. Imagine that atmosphere as you listen to these extracts.

Performers: Eugen Antoni, tenor; Raisa Palmu, soprano; Erja Wimen, contralto; Finnish National Opera Chorus; Eric-Olof Söderström

Taken from Naxos 8.555908

Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14

Rachmaninov wrote this song for a soprano – but unlike most songs, there are no words! The voice is treated like an instrument.

Performers: Dinara Alieva, soprano; Russian State Symphony Orchestra; Dmitry Yablonsky

Taken from Naxos 8.572893

Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (arranged for cello)

Hypnotic and attractive, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise has been arranged for different instruments to play. So in addition to the original soprano version above, here it is in a version for cello, where the cello is given the soprano’s melody. Which version do you prefer?

Performers: Michael Grebanier, cello; Janet Guggenheim, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550987

Sonata in G minor for cello and piano, Op. 19

Rachmaninov treats the cello and piano equally in this sonata – in fact, it is the piano that introduces most of the main themes. The cello then takes them up and plays around with them! It is in four big movements.

Performers: Michael Grebanier, cello; Janet Guggenheim, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550987