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Rachmaninov, Sergei (1873-1943)

Sergei Rachmaninov

born: 1 April 1873
died: 28 March 1943
country: Russia

‘Melody is music’, wrote Rachmaninov, ‘the basis of music as a whole, since a perfect melody implies and calls into being its own harmonic design’. The Russian composer, pianist and conductor’s passion for melody was central to his work, clearly heard in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a brilliant and diverse set of variations on a tune by the great 19th-century violinist and composer Niccolò Paganini.

Although the young Sergei’s father squandered much of the family inheritance, initially he invested wisely in his son’s musical education. In 1882 the boy received a scholarship to study at the St Petersburg Conservatory, but further disasters at home hindered his progress and he moved to study at the Moscow Conservatory. Here he proved an outstanding piano pupil and began to study composition. Rachmaninov’s early works reveal his debt to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, although he rapidly forged a personal, richly lyrical musical language, clearly expressed in his Prelude in C sharp minor for piano (1892). His First Symphony (1897) was savaged by the critics, which caused the composer’s confidence to evaporate. In desperation he sought help from Dr Nikolai Dahl, whose hypnotherapy sessions restored Rachmaninov’s self-belief and gave him the will to complete his Second Piano Concerto, widely known through its later use as the soundtrack for the classic film Brief Encounter. Thereafter, his creative imagination ran free to produce a string of unashamedly romantic works divorced from newer musical trends. He left Russia shortly before the October Revolution in 1917, touring as a pianist and conductor and buying properties in Europe and the United States.

from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2009

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