Last and very much not least, the final composer in our series of profiles is Mr. Boyle’s choice: Rachmaninoff, the Russian giant.
A child piano prodigy, Rachmaninoff was attending and performing at the Moscow Conservatory by the time he was twelve. He spent many years there, learning piano and composition, passing his final exams aged just 18. His years at the Conservatory set him up for a dual life as professional pianist and composer, where he toured Europe and premiered his own works. However, not all the premieres went well, such as the first performance of Symphony No. 1, which was hindered by conductor Glazunov’s poor use of rehearsal time and possible drunkenness. This failed premiere was one reason that Rachmaninoff fell into depression for several years around this time.
As the twentieth-century began, Rachmaninoff started to recover and returned to composing. Soon, he was offered a period conducting at the Bolshoi Theatre, and his tours as both pianist and conductor started to increase, taking him as far afield as North America. He performed with prestigious groups like the New York Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra, and eventually emigrated to the USA after several family deaths and difficulty in Russia with his positions of authority and Jewish faith.
As he grew older, Rachmaninoff remained in demand as a performer, but his composition output decreased significantly. Poor health forced him to move to a warmer climate, and he eventually died just before his seventieth birthday. As a composer and performer, Rachmaninoff was strongly influenced by Late Romanticism, and yet was not afraid to push boundaries created by this style. His compositional oeuvre spanned symphonies, chamber music, opera, solo piano music, and choral works, as well as a significant body of arrangements of other composers’ works for piano or piano duet. Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Schubert, and Mussorgsky all received the “Rachmaninoff treatment”.
These days, Rachmaninoff is best known for his thick, Romantic sound: achingly beautiful melodies, spectacular climaxes, huge ensembles, and a vast array of technical challenges for the performer(s). His music regularly appears in lists of “best classical music” and he will forever be remembered by pianists as one of the greatest performers and composers for the instrument to have ever lived. Famed for his large hands, Rachmaninoff’s piano music is considered by many to be the pinnacle of achievement for pianists. Have a listen to just a handful of his best works:
Piano Concerto No. 3 – talk about technically challenging… this concerto is famed for its difficulty. You may recognise the opening theme already, but Rachmaninoff leaves you some surprises for the end. Arguably neglected in favour of the second piano concerto, this is well worth a listen.
Symphony No. 2 – the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s symphonies, the second movement is particularly well-known and rarely fails to excite. The third movement features one of Rachmaninoff’s most overtly Romantic themes and will sweep you off your feet.
Variations on a Theme of Chopin – it would be wrong to talk about Rachmaninoff and not include some solo piano music. A staggering twenty-two variations follow the original theme in C minor. These variations range in speed from 44bpm to 144bpm and show off Rachmaninoff’s skill in transforming pre-existing music.