Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Variations on a theme by Frederic Chopin, Op. 22 Morceauxde fantaisie, Op. 3
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was among those Russiancomposers who chose exile, rather than remain in Russia after the Revolution of1917, the consequent civil turmoil and, as it turned out, the years of despoticoppression that followed. He was born at Semyonovo in 1873 into a family ofstrong military traditions on his mother's side and more remotely on hisfather's. A tendency to extravagance had depleted his father's fortunes, makingit necessary to sell off much of their land and dissipating his wife's dowry.As a result of this, the childhood of Rachmaninov was largely spent at the oneremaining family estate at Oneg, near Novgorod. The reduction in familycircumstances had at least one happier result. When it became necessary to sellthis estate and move to St Petersburg, the expense of educating the boy for theImperial service proved too great. Rachmaninov could make use, instead, of hismusical gifts, entering St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of nine with ascholarship. Showing no particular industry as a student and lacking theattention he needed at home, in 1885 Rachmaninov failed all his general subjectexaminations at the Conservatory and there were threats that his scholarshipwould be withdrawn. His mother, now separated from her husband and responsiblefor her son's welfare, arranged, on the advice of one of her relations, thewell known pianist Alexander Ziloti, that the boy should move to Moscow tostudy with Zverev, a teacher known to impose the strictest discipline. InZverev's house, however uncongenial the rigorous routine, Rachmaninov acquiredmuch of his phenomenal ability as a pianist, while broadening his musicalunderstanding by attending concerts in the city. At the age of fifteen hebecame a pupil of Zverev's former student Ziloti, a musician who had alsostudied with Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rubinstein and, thereafter, with Liszt.Rachmaninov had lessons in harmony and counterpoint with Sergey Taneyev andArensky, and his growing interest in composition led to a quarrel with Zverevand removal to the house of his relations, the Satins.
In 1891 Rachmaninov completed his piano studies at theConservatory and the composition of his first piano concerto. The followingyear he graduated from the composition class and composed the notorious Preludein C sharp minor, a piece that was to haunt him by its excessive popularity.His early career brought initial success as a composer, halted by the failureof his first symphony at its first performance in 1897, when it was conductedbadly by Glazunov, apparently drunk at the time, and then reviewed in thecruellest terms by Cesar Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depictin music the seven plagues of Egypt. Rachmaninov busied himself as a conductor,accepting an engagement in this capacity with Mamontov's Moscow Private RussianOpera Company. He was only able to return to composition after a course oftreatment with Dr Nikolay Dahl, a believer in the efficacy of hypnotism. Theimmediate result was the second of his four piano concertos, a work that hasproved to be one of the most immediately popular of all he wrote.
The years before the Russian revolution brought continuedsuccessful activity as a composer and as a conductor. In 1902 Rachmaninovmarried Natalya Satina and went on to pursue a career that was bringing himincreasing international fame. There were journeys abroad and a busyprofessional life, from which summer holidays at the estate of Ivanovka, whichhe finally acquired from the Satins in 1910, provided respite. During the war,however depressing the circumstances, he continued his concert engagements, notbeing required for military service, as he had anticipated. All this wasinterrupted by the abdication of the Tsar in 1917 and the beginning of theRevolution.
Rachmaninov left Russia in 1917. From then until his deathin Beverly Hills in 1943, he was obliged to rely largely on performance for aliving. Now there was, in consequence, much less time for composition, as heundertook demanding concert-tours, during which he dazzled audiences in Europeand America with his remarkable powers as a pianist. His house at Ivanovka wasdestroyed in the Russian civil war and in 1931, the year of his Variations on aTheme of Corelli, his music was banned in Russia, after he had added hissignature to a letter to The New York Times drawing attention to the atrocitiesbeing committed by the then Russian government. The ban was withdrawn two yearslater. He spent much time in America, where there were lucrative concert-tours,but established a music publishing-house in Paris and built for himself a villanear Lucerne, where he completed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in 1934and his Third Symphony a year later. In 1939 he left Europe, to spend his finalyears in the United States.
Rachmaninov wrote his Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22, in 1902 and 1903. For his theme he took Chopin's Prelude, Op. 28, No. 20,in C minor, adding a series of 22 variations well suited to his own style ofperformance. While these include versions of the material of some elaborationand rhythmic complexity, others, as in the case of the first variations of theset, offer relatively simple textures.
The five Morceaux de Fantaisie, Op. 3, were written in theautumn of 1892, when Rachmaninov was nineteen and had just completed hisstudies in composition at Moscow Conservatory. He gave the first performance ata concert in Kharkov towards the end of the same year. Two of the pieces,including the famous Prelude, formed part of his programme in London in 1903,when he conducted his orchestral work, The Rock. In 1940 he revised the Melodiein E major and the Serenade in B flat minor. The mood of each piece isgenerally described in the title, while the second seemed to many to epitomizeRachmaninov's style in its drama and implicit feeling of melancholy.
In 1909 Rachmaninov undertook his first Americanconcert-tour, from which he returned early in the following year, now to assumeownership of the estate at Ivanovka. There followed a further period of intenseactivity as a performer, conductor and composer. It was in 1913, during aholiday with his wife and children in Rome, that he started work on The Bells,inspired by the poem of Edgar Allan Poe, to be completed at Ivanovka and firstperformed that winter in Moscow. The same period saw the composition of thesecond of his two piano sonatas and the first performance by the composer ofthe sonata in Moscow in December. Rachmaninov revised the sonata in 1931,cutting some 120 bars and rewriting and clarifying the texture of severalpassages, notably in the development sections of the movements. The sonata wasdedicated to the pianist Matvey Presman, director of the Rostov Academy, and afellow-pupil with Rachmaninov in the house of Zverov. Presman's dismissal in1912 had led Rachmaninov in turn to resign from his position as Vice-Presidentof the Russian Musical Society. It was to Presman that, as a boy, he haddedicated his first attempt at composition.
The Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 36, in its originalform makes heavier technical demands on a performer and includes extendedpassages of virtuoso piano-writing. The first movement opens with a boldassertion of the key of B flat minor and a descending fragment of melody whichwill appear soon transformed into the major tonality. There is a transitionusing characteristic dotted rhythms, followed, after a short cadenza, by thesecond subject, a gentle D flat major theme in a dotted compound rhythm almostsuggesting a siciliano. It