The year 2023 marks the hundred-fiftieth anniversary of the birth of Sergei Rachmaninoff, born April 1, 1873, in Semyonovo, Novgorod, Russia. His music is revered the world over. In the realm of the piano concerto alone, pianists and conductors would be at a serious disadvantage without his five works for piano and orchestra. Perhaps it would be similar if an opera house gave a season devoid of Puccini.

Rachmaninoff was a composer in many genres, and his piano music exploits its instrument with innumerable and especially original designs. Indeed, he was one of the most comprehensive and complete musicians of the twentieth century. The Moscow critic Joel Engel felt that “Rachmaninoff is a truly ‘God-given’ conductor who stirs both audience and orchestra. He may be the only great Russian conductor who can compare with such figures in the West as Nikisch, Colonne, and Mahler.” His piano music is filled with a melancholic lyric poignancy supported by luscious harmonic and contrapuntal fabrics. His ability to use the percussive bass of the piano produces a unique, often guttural, effect. The pianist Alfred Mirovitch wrote,

Only a great pianist can write great piano music, music written out of the piano and for the piano. Rachmaninoff’s supreme knowledge and understanding of the instrument bears witness to life-long thinking and feeling in terms of the piano.

All of his piano music gives the hands sensual pleasure. Studying his pianism is an exhilarating experience, and, although Rachmaninoff wrote for his own enormous hands, few pianists can resist reveling in the growths of his exotic pianistic gardens. Rachmaninoff is the master of nostalgia, and his music is permeated with late Russian Romanticism.

Unfortunately, so many overripe, lily-gilding performances of Rachmaninoff have harmed his reputation. But listening to his own recordings is sheer refreshment.

If you are the type of mind to make superlative classifications, to feel that someone or other is the greatest, then you would be in good company if you think Rachmaninoff to be the greatest pianist of the first half of the twentieth century. In a foolhardy moment, I asked Vladimir Horowitz to compare his playing with Rachmaninoff’s. Pointing skyward, he simply remarked, “Maybe I am an oak tree, but Rachmaninoff was a redwood.” In his last season, still in the finest pianistic shape, Rachmaninoff beseeched rca, his record company, to record his recitals. The powers that be said the logistics were too difficult and would be too expensive. He wanted as well to record both Suites for Two Pianos and the extraordinary arrangement of his last orchestral work, Symphonic Dances (Op. 45), with Horowitz. But his regal request was denied. Imagine: Horowitz and Rachmaninoff together. One gulps at the thought. But such is commerce.

Pointing skyward, he simply remarked, “Maybe I am an oak tree, but Rachmaninoff was a redwood.”

Rachmaninoff’s repertoire was vast, and we could have had his recreations of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor (“Appassionata”), Sonata No. 30 in E major, and Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat major. We might have had a goodly amount of Bach, including the E-minor Toccata and A-minor English Suite, as well as chunks of Liszt: the B-minor Ballade, the “Dante” Sonata, and, in the great pianist Shura Cherkassky’s words, “The mightiest of all Liszt Sonatas,” that in B minor. Ah, to have him playing his own Variations on a Theme of Corelli (Op. 42). All performances I have ever heard of this disappoint. Thank goodness he recorded his five works for piano and orchestra. We lament so many compositions writ in ivory in the soundless space of the perpetual past.

Rachmaninoff’s training in St. Petersburg was desultory, and he squirmed at school. At the age of twelve he was packed off to Moscow by a brilliant first cousin, the Liszt pupil Alexander Siloti, to study with Nikolai Zverev, a distinguished teacher of young talent. Zverev was an almost impossibly severe taskmaster, and his word was law. Each year he took on a few boarders, and each of these young pianists rose before dawn to practice an endless regimen of technical exercises. Zverev was a wealthy and cultivated man, and he was obsessed with producing outstanding pianists. He took his charges to the finest restaurants, taught them the niceties of manners, went with them to concerts, opera, and the ballet, and even brought them to gypsy camps to hear folk music. Zverev had class recitals weekly, and the guest lists at these soirees were formidable. Rachmaninoff met his idol Tchaikovsky and heard Anton Rubinstein, considered the greatest pianist since Liszt’s early retirement. Years later, Rachmaninoff wrote of Rubinstein, “I stored up wonderful memories with which no others in my experience can compare. [He was] the most original, the unequaled pianist of the world.”

From the spring of 1888 he studied piano with his cousin Siloti. The conservatory was a hothouse of competitive pianism. Scriabin was there, as well as Josef Lhévinne, Alexander Goldenweiser, and dozens of gifted players. Goldenweiser was stunned at the speed with which Rachmaninoff could learn music: “His power of engraving in his memory the whole fabric of a musical work, and playing it with pianistic finish, was truly astounding.” Goldenweiser remembered him learning the formidable Brahms–Handel Variations in three days and performing the huge score perfectly from memory. At the conservatory Rachmaninoff studied composition with the Tchaikovsky epigone Anton Arensky and was an ardent pupil of the venerable contrapuntist and composer Sergei Taneyev. Zverev was, however, uninterested in Rachmaninoff as a composer, and a rift developed into bitterness.

Rachmaninoff excelled at the conservatory and graduated a year early in 1892, at nineteen, with highest honors in both composition and piano. His final examination in composition, the opera Aleko, won him the conservatory’s rare Great Gold Medal and restored his relationship with Zverev. It also earned him the admiration of Tchaikovsky, his longtime idol.

Zverev and Tchaikovsky became prominent advocates for Rachmaninoff and secured publishers for his compositions. They both died in late 1893, however, and Rachmaninoff struggled financially. He took a position at a girls’ school, a job he held for several years. During that time, he composed several works, completing in 1895 his Symphony No. 1 in D minor (Op. 13).

Alexander Glazunov, the conductor for the Russian Symphony Concerts—a series of performances put on by the philanthropist Mitrofan Belyayev in St. Petersburg to present the work of young composers—made many cuts in the symphony, allegedly as a result of drunkenness. The 1897 premiere was so devastating to Rachmaninoff that it spurred a three-year depression. As a composer he totally went blank. Only through the efforts of intense hypnotherapy administered by the Moscow physician Nikolai Dahl did the musician slowly reenter the land of the living. Repeatedly, Dahl told him that he would compose again and his work would be of high quality. Suddenly in a creative flood, three outstanding works were composed: the second Suite for Two Pianos (Op. 17), the soon-to-be-famous Second Piano Concerto (Op. 18), and the magnificent Cello Sonata in G minor (Op. 19). A grateful Rachmaninoff dedicated the Second Piano Concerto to Dahl.

Despite opposition from the Russian Orthodox Church, he married his first cousin Natalia Satina in 1902. In 1903, a daughter was born, and then another one in 1907. By 1909 he had composed the important Second Symphony (Op. 27) and the symphonic poem Isle of the Dead (Op. 29; Rachmaninoff recorded it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1929). He also did a great deal of conducting, championing the operas of Rimsky-Korsakov, whose music he adored. But still, he played only his own music in public and thought of himself foremost as a composer.

It was a performance for eternity. 

In 1909, Rachmaninoff was offered a handsome contract for an American tour, and a commission for the Third Piano Concerto. Upon arriving in New York, he immediately took the train to Northampton, Massachusetts, and at Smith College he gave his American debut in a program of his own music, the centerpiece being his recently composed First Piano Sonata (Op. 28). Within days of the debut, he gave the world premiere, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony, of his Third Piano Concerto (Op. 30), which received mixed reviews.

The next year, in January 1910, he performed his new concerto at Carnegie Hall with no less than Gustav Mahler conducting. The Russian was deeply impressed with Mahler’s preparation. It was a performance for eternity. The two great artists never again performed together, and Mahler died the next year at age fifty.

Before returning to Russia, Rachmaninoff purchased the latest in American farm equipment to bolster his father-in-law’s estate, Ivanovka, a place that Rachmaninoff dearly loved and soon purchased. It was there in 1910 that he composed his Thirteen Preludes (Op. 32), filled with the sounds of nature.

After Alexander Scriabin’s tragic early death at forty-three in 1915, Rachmaninoff learned his former classmate’s Piano Concerto, which he featured in a recital program also containing Scriabin’s Fifth Sonata. This he performed several times, with proceeds going to rescue the Scriabin family from poverty.

After the catastrophic Russian Revolution in 1917, Rachmaninoff found it impossible to live in the “new” Russia. Indeed, he and his family were in physical danger at Ivanovka, with peasant uprisings constantly threatening. Telling authorities he would return after a ten-concert tour of Scandinavia, he took the maximum two thousand rubles and left the estate, his pianos, manuscripts, paintings, “everything.” He never again saw Russia. This act practically killed the melancholic man. He said, “The whole world is open to me, and success awaits me everywhere. Only one place is closed to me, and that is my own country—Russia.” Rachmaninoff was crushed when Stalin eventually banned his music from broadcast or performance.

Rachmaninoff had liked America, and New York had a large immigrant Russian community. He was offered two lucrative conducting posts, with the Cincinnati Orchestra and no less than the Boston Symphony. He refused, making the monumental and unprecedented decision to attempt his living as a touring concert pianist.

Above all, Rachmaninoff’s identity was as a pianist. It has often been said that a man is once a pianist, always a pianist, and it was true for Rachmaninoff, no matter how accomplished his composing. Beginning in 1918, Rachmaninoff, now into his forty-sixth year, tried his luck in a golden age of the piano. Busoni, Paderewski, Hess, Hofmann, Lhévinne, Godowsky, Friedman, and many more, including Horowitz in 1928, were delighted to perform and usually live in the United States, called “Dollarland” for an ever increasing American audience that craved serious music.

He practiced beyond endurance.

As a compulsive perfectionist, Rachmaninoff was faced with the grim battle of refurbishing and learning a large repertoire for a career that kept him tied to the piano. He practiced beyond endurance, ultimately becoming one of the largest draws of concert life in America and Western Europe at a time when the solo recital was highly revered and amateur playing still held sway. Although he never made any royalties on his famous C-sharp-minor Prelude (Op. 3), it was demanded by every “Flatbush flapper.” Inevitably he had to bring it out as an encore as audiences screamed, “play it! play it!

Performing had become crucial to his psychological well-being. Although his once-prolific compositional flow was blocked, within the decade of the 1930s he wrote five important large-scale works. In general, he was bewildered by contemporary music, and critics said he was a relic, old-fashioned and faded. Rachmaninoff wrote,

Forever traveling, working. . . . I do not regret it. I love to play. I have a powerful craving for the concert platform. When there are no concerts to give, I rest poorly.

In 1922, after four continuous years of concertizing, he remarked,

I practice, I practice, I make some progress, but actually the more I play the more clearly I see my inadequacies. If ever I learn this business thoroughly, it may be on the eve of my death.

In 1926 he wrote,

I shall again sit down at the piano and do exercises for the fourth and fifth fingers. About five years ago Hofmann told me that the second finger is “the lazy one.” I fixed my attention on this finger and began to check it. Soon I noticed the third finger had the same fault. And now, the longer I live the more I am convinced that both the fourth and fifth fingers work in bad faith. Only the thumb remains honest and that is only temporary! So I have begun to look at it, too, with suspicion.

In a 1931 letter to Hofmann, who always proclaimed Rachmaninoff to be the supreme pianist, Rachmaninoff wrote,

After thinking over your offer to exchange hands with me . . . I accept. So I am to trade you my twenty fingers (according to your count), for your ten, which I still swear—despite the smaller number—are far superior than mine. The difficulty is how to close our deal—and in a painless fashion, any suggestions?

Such delicious humor is even better from so dour a person.

Stravinsky called Rachmaninoff a “six-and-a-half-foot scowl.” Rachmaninoff once said,

I am afraid of everything—mice, rats, beetles, oxen, murderers. I am frightened when a strong wind blows and howls in a chimney, when I hear the raindrops on the windowpane, I am afraid of the darkness, etc. I don’t like old attics and I’m even willing to admit there are goblins around . . .

Within these lines one can hear many strains of Rachmaninoff music.

Arthur Rubinstein felt Rachmaninoff was the most fascinating pianist of them all
since Busoni:

[H]e could convince me by the sheer impact of his personality. . . . He had the secret of the golden, living tone which came from the heart, which is inimitable. In my strong opinion he was a greater pianist than a composer.

This is quite a strong statement indeed.

The late Francis Robinson, the assistant manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, wrote,

The fall-out at a Rachmaninoff Concert was high. . . . The shattering effect began with his appearance, the austere frame which looked to be as long as his instrument and as gaunt, the angular gait unlike anything that has moved before or since, the withdrawn expression as remote as an icon before centuries of candle smoke.

The English pianist Cyril Smith thought, “Such was the power of his personality that I have seen members of the audience cower down in their seats as his glance passed
over them.”

Rachmaninoff recordings are among the treasures of recorded art. He was one of the first important pianists to take recording seriously. Many of his colleagues took a wayward, even cavalier, approach to recording. Busoni called it the devil’s instrument. Rachmaninoff, who lived in the climate of the ideal, refused to release anything that he considered less than his best.

Rachmaninoff recordings are among the treasures of recorded art.

In an age without tape editing, the electrical recording process invented in 1925 needed complete takes of the composition. For example, Rachmaninoff’s celebrated recording of his transcription of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was recorded forty-nine times until he was satisfied.

In the first years of his pianistic career, like Hofmann and Busoni, he was called a “modernist.” The public had been comfortable with rhythmically loose performances filled with conventional rubato and a surfeit of sentimentality. Rachmaninoff insisted that

Behind every composition is the architectural plan of the composer. The student should endeavor, first of all, to discover this plan, and then he should build in the manner in which the composer would have had him build.

For Rachmaninoff everything had to move towards a specific “point,” as he called it. If his performance missed the point, he thought it a total failure and was disconsolate. After a tour of seventy concerts, he told his wife that he had only played two that were good.

Year after year this solitary man needed to communicate music. To a friend he said,

You see, I am like an old grisette. She is skinny and worn, but the urge to walk the street is so strong that in spite of her years, she goes out every night. And so it is with me. I am old and wrinkled, and I have to play on. I could not play any less. I want to play all I can.

Once when asked to describe talent, he answered,

I am inclined to believe that heredity and training are inseparable and indispensable in any art achievement. I consider that a capacity for hard work is also a talent and only those few artists who have inherited both musical and working talents attain the highest peak of their profession.

For this listener, the finest recording of the splendid Grieg Violin Sonata No. 3 is Rachmaninoff’s collaboration with the violinist Fritz Kreisler. The pianist recalled,

Perhaps so much labour did not altogether please Fritz Kreisler. He is a great artist, but does not care to work too hard. Being an optimist, he will declare with enthusiasm that the first set of proofs we make are wonderful, marvelous. But my own pessimism invariably causes me to feel, and argue, that they could be better.

After thirty discs he was satisfied. Kreisler’s playing was never finer, and when one listens carefully, one hears Rachmaninoff guiding Kreisler in every phrase.

Every one of the tiny pieces is a marvel of chiseled pianistic control making an invincible structure.

Perhaps the most admired of any performance of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval is Rachmaninoff’s 1929 recording. Possibly because of the early recording process, he decided not to observe Schumann’s repeat signs—a pity, as the work would be extended eight or nine minutes with many original details. Every one of the tiny pieces is a marvel of chiseled pianistic control making an invincible structure. In the “Paganini” section, Rachmaninoff’s huge hands encompass the piece’s violin trickery in one of the wondrous moments of the human nervous system on a piano. Another of the larger works that have come to us is the celebrated recording of the “Funeral March” Sonata of Chopin. I once told a famous pianist that I admired his performance of this composition and he demurred, “Oh, just a feeble imitation of Rachmaninoff’s performance.”

Of the “Funeral March” Sonata, the eminent New York Times critic W. J. Henderson wrote of a 1930 Carnegie Hall recital:

The logic of the thing was impervious; the plan invulnerable; the proclamation was imperial. There was nothing left for us but to thank our stars that we had lived when Rachmaninoff did and heard him, out of the divine light of his genius, re-create a masterpiece. It was a day of genius understanding genius. One does not often get the opportunity to be present when such forces are at work. But one thing must not be forgotten: there was no iconoclast engaged; Chopin was still Chopin.

After a performance in Bath, England, the British critic Neville Cardus observed,

Even an ordinary broken chord is made to disclose rare beauties; we are reminded of the fairies’ hazelnuts in which diamonds were concealed but you could break the shell only if your hands were blessed.

Living in terrible pain from a galloping cancer, Rachmaninoff was still practicing and performing almost until his death. His last appearances as soloist took place on February 11 and 12, 1943. Hans Lange conducted him in Beethoven’s First Concerto and Rachmaninoff’s own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Op. 43). After playing in Louisville on February 15, he was told by doctors to cancel a solo recital in Knoxville, Tennessee. Disobeying orders because he had canceled a performance there the year before, he played in that city on February 17, 1943, the last recital of his fabled career. The program included Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata.

In my opinion every piano teacher should begin each lesson by playing for their students any Rachmaninoff recording. Listening to his work is an indispensable pianistic education. His sense of rubato is so singular that it leaves many a player askance in our routinized, standardized era. Everything Rachmaninoff touched is given in a new light and framework. In such a piece as the Scriabin Prelude in F-sharp minor, he disregards the composer’s tempo marking allegro agitato and breathes into it a slow, dreaming softness. When I hear his recordings of Chopin, I am astonished at his recreations. I wonder what Chopin would have thought of them. When I hear his seething performance of Chopin’s Third Scherzo, I am hearing an incomparably original conception and realization.

He only recorded a dozen of his own works, each instilled with a magical quality. He also recorded many of his transcriptions of Bizet, Bach, Kreisler, Tchaikovsky, and others. These arrangements mysteriously become Rachmaninoff’s own creations. Of his recording of the Schubert Impromptu in A-flat major (Op. 90, No. 4), the pianist Stephen Kovacevich wrote,

He reveals a depth of passion that is really what Schubert is all about. It is not the usual Viennese chocolate-and-whipped-cream performance. It’s absolutely piercing and passionate.

In listening to the dozens of small pieces, I find they never dim, never disappoint or go stale. All are infused with a sustained spiritual energy. I once asked Wanda Toscanini Horowitz to describe him and she replied, “Rachmaninoff was the most aristocratic man I ever knew.”

On his deathbed, Rachmaninoff, looking at his hands, lamented, “My dear hands, farewell my dear hands.” Josef Hofmann said,

Rachmaninoff was made of steel and gold: steel in his arms, gold in his heart. I can never think of this majestic being without tears in my eyes, for I not only admired him as a supreme artist, but I also loved him as a man.

He is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York, just north of Manhattan. Through the years many a pilgrim has placed lilacs and daisies on his tombstone—symbols of his two most famous songs.

At the apartment building at 505 West End Avenue in New York, there is a plaque that reads, “Rachmaninoff . . . lived here.” It is a sacred place. I touched the plaque, and in my mind I heard the melting Eighteenth Variation from his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

A Message from the Editors

Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 1, on page 17
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now