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The composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff is considered the last in the great tradition of Russian romantic composers. He was born Apr. 1 (N.S.), 1873, at his family's estate, Semyonovo, in the Russian province of Novgorod. At about the age of 5, he began piano studies with his mother. In 1882 he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, but he transferred 3 years later to the Moscow Conservatory. There he studied under the rigorous supervision of Nikolai Zverev, through whom he met many of the most important Russian composers of the time. Tchaikovsky, especially, exercised a major influence on him. He graduated in piano in 1891 and in composition with the Great Gold Medal in 1892.
At just 19 years of age, Rachmaninoff sold some pieces outright to a publisher who failed to secure an international copyright. Among them was the C-sharp Minor Prelude (1892), which would bring publishers a fortune and the composer world fame. The failure of his First Symphony in 1897 stifled his inspiration for 3 years. Following treatment by hypnosis he produced the Second Piano Concerto in 1901. It inspired a period of creativeness that lasted until 1917, yielding 22 of his total production of 45 opus numbers. Apprehensive about the Bolshevik Revolution, he left Russia, making the United States his base of operations and, after 1939, his home. At first he composed nothing. Then between 1926 and 1940, five final works appeared, including the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and the Third Symphony (1936). His international concert career intensified in exile. He toured until a month before his death on Mar. 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Rachmaninoff's music often recalls distinctively Russian sounds. Russian bell sonorities are imitated, as in the cantata The Bells (1913), or reformulated into abstract ideas, as in the C-sharp Minor Prelude, the opening of the Second Piano Concerto, or the main theme of the finale of the Third Piano Concerto (1909). The modality, formulaic melody, and intonational rhythms of many themes recall melody types found both in Russian Orthodox chant and the folk-ballad song, as in the opening of the Third Piano Concerto and the first theme of the First Symphony.
1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.