Rachmaninoff, Sergey Vasilyevich (1873-1943), Russian American composer, pianist, and conductor, one of the most brilliant pianists of the 20th century, whose compositions are considered the last major musical expression of the romantic era.
Rachmaninoff was born near Novgorod. He began studying piano at an early age and in 1885 entered the Moscow Conservatory. There his piano teachers included the stringent disciplinarian Nikolay Zverov and Rachmaninoff’s cousin Aleksandr Siloti, who gave him the heritage of his own teacher, Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt. There also, Rachmaninoff studied with three eminent Russian composers: Anton Arensky, Sergey Taneyev, and his most important musical mentor, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor (1892), for piano and orchestra, and his opera Aleko (1893) established his reputation as a composer. Also written in 1893 was his second Trio élégiaque, in memory of Tchaikovsky, who died in November of that year. In 1897 Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 in D Minor was performed. Its disastrous reception caused him to stop composing, and for three years he worked solely as a pianist and conductor. His Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor (1900) marked Rachmaninoff’s return to composition. From the next 17 years come his Symphony No. 2 in E Minor (1906); the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (1909); the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910), for choir; the choral symphony The Bells (1913), based on a poem by American writer Edgar Allan Poe; the All-Night Vigil (1915), also known as the Vesper Mass, for unaccompanied choir; and many highly admired songs. Except for a period in Dresden, Germany (1906-1908), he worked mainly in Moscow; from 1904 to 1906 he conducted at the Bolshoi Theater.
Rachmaninoff left Russia in 1917 and settled in the United States the following year. In exile he concentrated on his piano and conducting careers, making recordings in both fields. His few compositions after 1917 include the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (1934), for piano; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1936), for piano and orchestra; the Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (1936); and the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Minor (1937). Rachmaninoff died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943.1