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Anniversary:Sergei Rachmaninoff – 150

Tuesday, 4 April 2023 , ora 12.38

"Music is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for music"

- Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Sergei Rachmaninoff's music is among the favoured opuses within musical institutions' programs from all over the world. Today, which marks the 150th anniversary of his birth, April 1, 1873,can be considered a special opportunity to remember one of the most influential and well-known Romantic pianists and composers.

Rachmaninoff today

For some, the Russian composer symbolises only a frequent association with Paganini's music and an impressive pianist, and yet we must not forget that he did not only represent that. Indeed, when nowadays music lovers think about Beethoven, they immediately hear Symphony No. 5. The same can be said about Rachmaninoff, who is often associated with his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.For classical music, Rachmaninoff has represented and will always represent an important figure for the Russian composing school and one of the most refined pianists of his generation. The Russian composer has treated piano in such a unique way and he managed to bring forward such music that would only sound so good on a keyboard. Throughout his most well-known opuses for this instrument, there are Piano Concerto No. 2for the orchestra and the piano and the Prelude in C-sharp minor. If you say that you have never heard of these titles, we gladly encourage you to listen to only a few seconds and the first chords are the single thing you need to hearin order to know that this is Sergei Rachmaninoff's music.

There are rare cases in which we are able to listen to the works of a composer in their own version, and today Rachmaninoff remains a renowned interpreter of his own works. He was one of the most important modern pianists, often compared with Franz Liszt. It is said that he could reach 12 keys on a piano keyboard with each of his hands. Rachmaninoff's best interpretations highlight his language interconnection, and we are glad to be able to listen to him performing a part of his compositions nowadays, all thanks to the recordings taken throughout his lifetime.

Regarding his raw musical talent, Rachmaninoff was one of the supreme piano virtuosos of his generation, bringing forth a personality that his colleague Josef Hofmann would call that of "steel and gold", which, through refinement in time, got to enthral every single night. Famous pianist Arthur Rubinstein summarized his interpretations with the following:"I was always captivated by his magnificent and incomparable sound, which made my unease of seeing his fingers moving so rapidly and his exaggerated rubato disappear. He always had an irresistible charm, not very different from that of Kreisler".

Who doesn't know his music?

Despite extensivepraise received for his compositions, Rachmaninoff faced significant hardships throughout his lifetime. Apart from his exile during the Bolshevik Revolution, he suffered from depression and was prone to writer's block, which often impeded him from finishing his works. Contrary to these moments, the Russian composer's musical legacy lives on profusely. His works are regularly interpreted all over the world and they remain one of the most loved opuses by interpreters, conductors and music lovers. Even thoughRachmaninoff has focused his attention on piano creation, on works of astonishing beauty and truly demanding in terms of technicality (we are mentioning here Études-Tableaux, the Preludes, the Fantasy Pieces, and the four Piano Concertosfor the piano and orchestra), he also wrote vocal music, chamber and orchestra music.

Piano Concerto No. 2 for the piano and orchestra is the most sung opus of hisin today's time, cited as one of the most beautiful concerts for the piano ever written. It was part of the soundtrack for the Brief Encounter movie, and later it was taken over by the FM radio stations, followed by an astonishing ascension asa forefront of the American tops of those times. Nowadays, this Concertremains a stepping stone for pianists and a frequent title that can be found on the posters of musical institutions from all over the world.

"I dont't know whether I managed to reconcile the eternal conflict between my artistic activity and my artistic conscience. I have never been able to decide which is my true vocation: composer, pianist or conductor. There are moments when I think that I should only be a conductor, and other times when I believe that I'm only a pianist. As an old Russian saying goes: << running after three rabbits at the same time>>. Could I say that I've caught one of them..?" are the words of Rachmaninoff about himself.

The man behind the stage

The legendary pianist-composer, who emigrated from Russia in 1917, had to restart his professional life at the age of almost 45 years old.He left the quill behind in favor of giving concerts in order to be able to buy a house for his family. Different sources indicate that he got to the point of singing for over 70 concerts in the span of only a few months. However, Rachmaninoff's arduous musical journey started ever since he was a child. Born in 1873 in Seminonov, in Russia, Rachmaninoff had been drawn to music at a young age. His family, even though they found themselves in a delicate situation, managed to afford to hire a tutor to give him piano lessons. His talent emerged quite early, followed by his first composition at the age of 13, and finally, to him studying piano at the Moscow Conservatory, where he developed his unique style by combining the technical prowess of his Russian predecessors with a Romantic and luxuriant style. When he left Russia in 1917 and got to America, he became highlydemanded. His concerts took over his life, composition being reserved only for the summer months -"In winter I'm a pianist and in summer, a composer", he said.

He was often critiqued for his cold and aloof attitude. Outside the stage, Rachmaninoff was melancholic, introverted, he never showed emotion in public, he avoided interviews and social reunions. He had a benevolent attitude and a deeply profound and personal religious belief, which he expressed through his set called Choral vespers without accompaniment, filled with rich and refined harmonies. Even though he didn't have a close-knit family during his childhood, his parents having got separated when he was very young, Rachmaninoff was a model family man who loved his wife, his two daughters and his grandchildren.Surrounded by their love, he forgets about his natural tendency towards melancholy and this is how the Rachmaninoff-man qualities emerge: him being sensitive, loving and kind, endowed with admirable humour and an infectious and unmistakable laugh. He liked high-quality things, he was dressed by the best tailors, he drove the best cars and, of course, he performed on the best pianos that the Steinway firm would provide him with wherever he went on tour.

His last years of life

He spent his last years recording his symphonies at the Philadelphia Music Academy. He lived his life searching for musical excellence and left the world a few days prior to turning 70. "A leader of the musical world - the pianist, composer and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff passed away in California" - this is how the American newspaper headlines sounded 80 years ago, in front with the New York Times, when announcing the unfortunate event from March 28, 1943 - the passing on to eternity of the great Sergei Rachmaninoff (April 1, 1873 - March 28, 1943).

Rachmaninoff left this world in his Beverly Hills house due to some health issues, which determined him to cancel his recitals from March 1943 twice. Everything happened shortly after he received his American citizenship together with his wife, Natalia Satina, and, thus, Rachmaninoff, born in Tsarist Russia and exiled during the Russian Revolution, dies a citizen of the United States.

Even though the day of April 1st has been confirmed as his official birthdate by theName Authority File, which can be found at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., this aspect remains controversial. Some sources and facts claim that Rachmaninoff celebrated his birthday on the 2nd of April. On his American citizenship request paper, signed by Rachmaninoff himself, 2ndof April is listed as his birthdate, which has also been marked on his headstone found in the Kensico cemetery in New York.

Concerto No. 2 for Piano and Orchestra

Concerto No. 3 for Piano and Orchestra

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini op.43

Symphony no. 2 op. 27 in E minor

Isle of the Dead op.29

The Bells op.35

Vespers op.37

Vocalise op.34 no.14

Sonata for Cello and Piano op.19 in G minor

10 Preludes op.23 for piano

Translated by Adelina-Maria Mănăilescu,
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, MTTLC, year I
Corrected by Silvia Petrescu