April 2, 2017. Rachmaninov. Anybody who pays attention to the musical calendar could accuse us of being prejudiced against Sergei Rachmaninov. Last week we wrote about Antonio de Cabezón, a somewhat obscure Spanish composer of the 17th century with a questionable birth date instead of writing about Rachmaninov, one of the most popular composers of the 20th century who was definitely born on April 1st. And a year ago, we wrote about Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, but again, not about Rachmaninov. Fortunately, it seems that among our listeners there are not too many sticklers for historical detail. We’re not trying to avoid Rachmaninov: he was a great composer, even if perception of his music has been changing over the years (but of course that also could be said about any composer of note). He was not a pathbreaker; his musical idiom came straight from the 19th century Russian tradition. Still, the totality of his work is original, he was a wonderful melodist and had a great sense of form. And, in additional to all that, he was one of the greatest pianist of the first half of the 20th century!
His life, as lives of so many Russian artists who lived through the Revolution, was broken in two: the Russian part and the exile. Rachmaninov was born on April 1st (or March 20th, old style) of 1873 on a family estate in the Novgorod province of northern Russia. His family was quite rich in the previous generations, but his father had squandered much of the wealth, leaving them just one estate at Oneg, and even that would be lost soon after. Rachmaninov, who received early piano lessons from his mother, was sent to the St.-Petersburg conservatory. Things did not go well there, and he transferred to Moscow to study with Nikolay Zverev. Lacking fund for his own place, he lived in his teacher’s apartment. That was providential, as that’s where he met many musicians who were influential in his development: Anton Rubinstein, Taneyev, Arensky, and, most
importantly, Tchaikovsky. Taneyev and Arensky became his teachers at the Conservatory; he also took piano classes with a cousin 10 years his elder, Alexander Siloti (Siloti, a pupil of Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky and Liszt, a virtuoso pianist and conductor, would also emigrate to the US after the Revolution). For a while Rachmaninov continued living with Zverev, but in 1888 moved in with his relatives, the Satins. Satins had an estate, Ivanovka, near Tambov, deep in the Russian provinces. Rachmaninov fell in love with the place; that’s where he would do most of his composing (Mahler at Steinbach or Maiernigg comes to mind). That’s were, in 1891, at just 18 years old, he wrote the First Piano concerto, his first major work. Rachmaninov fell in love not just with the place, he also fell in love with one of the Satins, the young Natalia. They were first cousins (Natalia’s mother was the sister of Sergei’s father) and therefore needed special permission to marry: in the end, a petition had to be sent to the Czar and was granted. They married in 1902 and stayed together till Rachmaninov’s death in 1945.
In 1892, as a graduation work at the Conservatory, he wrote Aleko, a one-act opera based on Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies. It was premiered in the Bolshoi a year later, with Tchaikovsky attending. Some year later Chaliapin sang in it and it’s still being staged today, if not very frequently. At the conservatory, the opera was awarded the highest mark, with Rachmaninov receiving the great Gold Medal.
Here’s Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 1 in a brilliant performance by Krystian Zimerman. Seiji Ozawa conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You cannot compare it to the Second and Third concertos but Rachmaninov’s melodic gifts are obvious, as is the wonderful mix of lyricism and energy.
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