A Brief History of Sergei Rachmaninoff February 27, 2023

Simon Morrison, Professor of Music at Princeton University, highlights the stories behind Sergei Rachmaninoff’s lesser known works and his greatest hits in our monthly newsletter.

Sergei Rachmaninoff composed some of the greatest hits of the 20th century by reaching back to the 19th century for inspiration. Fitting him in the history books has proved challenging: Was he Romantic? Was he modern? Was he modern and hopelessly nostalgic? Or even anti-modern and (as Richard Taruskin put it) “loving it”? There are other questions related to his sound. What happened to him in the United States after the Russian Revolution? He lived in Moscow and in Europe and in the US from 1917 until his death in Beverly Hills in 1943.  During his last twenty-five years he composed relatively little – just six of his 46 major works – while continuing to concertize.

He liked the high life of the 20s and 30s and proved himself a savvy businessman, notably in numerous successful publishing ventures. Rachmaninoff’s music enriched Orthodox religious expression, rethought nationalism, and addressed trauma, exile, and estrangement. He had deep and long-lasting obsessions: chant, Dante, Edgar Allen Poe, bells. He knew he had a gift for melody, and understood that gift could at times be a curse, since what he considered to be his most significant works were overshadowed by the hits. That he emerged from a Russian musical context that championed accessibility, beauty, heart-on-sleeve erotic-exotic lyricism, and traditional forms made him immortal.

His most famous piece is his Prelude in C-sharp minor. He premiered it at the Moscow Electrical Exhibition of September 1892, his public debut as a pianist. It became instantly popular, and for the rest of his international life Rachmaninoff was asked to play it, all the while refuting that it was somehow about his homeland. “I wrote it – but it is not a ‘bells of Moscow thing.’ I never had any bells in mind while writing it, I assure you.” “I am very sorry,” he told a reporter in Minneapolis in 1921.

Still, the hits kept coming and he kept playing them, all to maintain his lifestyle. The hits also kept coming because he wanted to connect with listeners, eschewing the dissonance, experiment, formalism, and neurosis of his Modernist peers.

Sometimes he failed. The 1897 premiere of his First Symphony under the baton of a tipsy conductor was a fiasco that, according to legend, sank Rachmaninoff into depression and a creative paralysis that only a hypnotist could cure. It’s a great story but it isn’t true. Rachmaninoff didn’t stop composing, and there happened to be personal reasons for his funk. Sessions with the hypnotist, Nikolai Dahl, seem to have been less therapeutic than social. He and Rachmaninoff chit-chatted.

He recovered with his Second Piano Concerto of 1901. Most concert-goers know this piece owing to its permanent presence on the international piano competition circuit. It’s so technically dazzling and melodically affecting as to leave listeners begging for more (or for less), with the knuckle-busting finale often ending with the pianist throwing themselves backwards in ecstatic relief (Lang Lang does this bit of theater the best).

Eric Carmen’s pop classic “All By Myself” borrows from the Second Piano Concerto, and great theme of the adagio of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony became part of Carmen’s (and Frank Sinatra’s) single “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again.” The melody achieves its magic in the symphony thanks to the chords underneath: alternating major and minor seventh sonorities that build to a climax that suddenly goes from loud to soft. It’s a heavenly effect lost in the popular versions – and lost in much 20th-century modern music. Rachmaninoff believed music directly influences a person’s mind, body, and spirit, but only after first passing through the heart.

His most beloved vocal piece is setting of the Vespers, or “All Night Vigil” as it is known in the Russian Orthodox Context. Among the most beautiful of all works for unaccompanied chorus, it turns away from the horrors of the world to gaze into eternity, and its sincerity seems all the more remarkable when we remember that Rachmaninoff wrote it long after he had ceased to be a churchgoer. He wanted the section called “Now Let Thy Servant Depart” to be performed at his own funeral. After another gorgeous melody, the music quietly quits the world at the end.