Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in the black soil region of Russia on April 1, 1873, to a landed and music loving family. Unfortunately his father lost the family’s wealth, but the love of music remained, and Rachmaninoff got his first piano lessons from his mother.
As young Sergei’s talent became more apparent he was able to attend the Moscow Conservatory, where he received sound musical training from Nikolay Zverev, who was a strict disciplinarian, and from Alexander Siloti, who was his cousin. He boarded with Zverev, whose weekly Musical Sundays allowed Sergei the opportunity to hear a wide range of music, and to make important connections with other musicians who were already established.
When Rachmaninoff became interested in composition, he bemoaned the fact that all of Zverev’s pianos were in one room, and he couldn’t compose without distractions because somebody was always practicing. He asked his teacher to buy him another piano and put it in a quiet room. This infuriated Zverev, who threatened to kick Rachmaninoff out, but his father’s sister, Varvara Satina, offered him room and board while he finished his studies at the conservatory, so the Satina family became Sergei’s second home.
He received the personal attention of Tchaikovsky, and a year after earning a degree in piano, he took the Conservatory’s gold medal in composition for his opera, Aleko in 1892. The rejection of his Symphony No. 1 in 1895, led to a period of depression and self-doubt, largely assuaged by the resounding success of his Piano concerto No. 2, though bouts of depression would debilitate him for the rest of his life.
Over the years the Satina children had become Rachmaninoff’s most trusted friends, and this was surely true of Natalya, who was four years his junior and an accomplished pianist herself. They shared an interest in music, lived in close proximity to one another and it’s not surprising that they fell in love. When they announced their intention to marry it was not well received. The families were reluctant, and first cousins were forbidden to marry within the Russian Orthodox Church. On top of that, Sergei was not a regular church goer and eschewed the confessional, and no priest would marry them without a certificate saying that he did both these things.
It was finally arranged that they should wed more or less secretly at a military barracks, since barrack priests reported to the Generals, not the Holy Synod. The last and biggest hurdle was to get permission from the Czar for first cousins to marry and the petition had to be sent during the marriage ceremony itself. No priest in his right mind was going to marry them without the Czar’s permission. It was Natalya’s mother, Varvara, who took on the challenge. Natalya writes, “My mother took on the challenge with her one-of-a-kind energy and zeal. She thus bustled all through winter, and only in March it transpired that a petition had to be sent to the Czar. The wedding was postponed until the end of April due to the arrival of Lent.” On April 29th, 1902, with rain pouring down, Sergei and Natalya were married in an army chapel just outside Moscow, with Alexander Siloti and Anatoli Brandukov as best men. The bride reports, “I rode in the carriage in my wedding dress, with the rain pouring relentlessly. The sole entry into the church was via a long succession of barracks. The soldiers stared at us in amazement.”
During the first decade of the 20th century, Rachmaninoff was the undisputed superstar of the piano circuit. Fans camped outside his house to catch a glimpse of him and followed him from city to city to see him perform. His manager regularly ejected crazed fans from their hiding places in his dressing room. Many of his compositions were incredibly complicated and fiendishly difficult to play, but he managed because of his enormous hands, which could reach a thirteenth on the keyboard. It is said he had possibly the largest hands in classical music, not to mention ethereal talent unparalleled to this day.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th Century he had toured America and cemented his fame and popularity. In 1917 amid political unrest and fearing that he might lose both his home and his family, he and his family fled Russia in an open sleigh, leading Rachmaninoff to lament that he had to leave behind his beautiful Bluthner piano.
He and Natalya recreated their Russian home in minute detail in America, and he developed a taste for fast cars and later, speedboats. He was twice offered and twice refused leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but it was his astounding abilities at the keyboard which won him his greatest fame.
Fortunately, Rachmaninoff recorded much of his own music, and we are able to hear his remarkable power, precision and clarity. Unfortunately, Rachmaninoff was a lifelong smoker, and a few weeks after becoming an American citizen he died of lung cancer in Beverly Hills, California, March 28, 1943, four days before his 70th Birthday. He is considered one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, and the last of the great romantic pianists.