April 2, 2012. Rachmaninov and Busoni. Sergei Rachmaninov was born on April 1, 1873. The last composer in the Russian tradition of the 19th century and a great admirer of Tchaikovsky, he wrote music that was unaffected be new developments in the early 20th century and continued writing in the romantic style even as composers like Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók were developing completely different and new idioms. Rachmaninov was born into a family of Russian aristocracy and spend his early years in Semyonovo, the family estate in the Northwestern part of Russia. He stared piano lessons with his mother at the age of four and continued with a professional teacher that was brought from St-Petersburg. At the age of ten he entered the St-Petersburg conservatory. Not the most diligent pupil, he failed some examinations before moving to the Moscow Conservatory in 1884 to study under a great disciplinarian Nikolai Zverev; the transfer was arranged by Alexander Siloti, a talented pianist and a relative of the Rachmaninovs (among Zverev’s other pupils were Scriabin, and two of the founders of the Soviet school of pianism, Konstantin Igumnov and Alexander Goldenweiser). While at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov wrote the first version of his Piano Concerto no. 1, Trio élégiaque No. 1 (you can listen to it here in the performance of Jupiter Trio), and several other pieces. For his graduation he wrote a one-act opera Aleko based on Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies. The opera was a success, the Bolshoi Theater staged it one year later with Tchaikovsky attending the premier, and on the 100th anniversary of Pushkin, in 1899, the great bass Feodor Chaliapin performed the title role in St-Petersburg. Rachmaninov graduated the Conservatory with the gold medal, which he shared with Scriabin and Josef Lhévinne, the pianist and future husband of Rosina Lhévinne, the famed Juilliard piano teacher. Soon after Rachmaninov wrote the Prelude in C-sharp minor, which made him famous. A piano roll recording of Rachmaninov performing this prelude has been preserved, and you can listen to it here, played on a Bösendorfer Reproducing Piano (courtesy of YouTube). Less than a year later Tachaikovsky, a mentor and a friend, died at the age of 53. It was a personal blow to Rachmaninov, who immediately wrote the second Trio élégiaque in Tchaikovsky’s memory. In some sense this episode marked the end of Rachmaninov’s youthful period.
We also remember the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni, who was born on April 1,1866. A child prodigy, he started performing at the age of seven. On a tour in Vienna in 1975 he met Liszt, Brahms and Anton Rubinstein and heard Liszt play. He taught piano in several cities of Europe and in the US and eventually settled in Berlin. Busoni had a large number of piano students, many of whom became famous and started their own piano schools. He also taught composition; among his students were Edgard Varèse and Kurt Weill. Busoni was an interesting composer, but these days he’s much better known for his piano transcriptions of the music of Bach. Here is a piano roll recording of Busoni playing his famous transcription of the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004.
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