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Sergei Rachmaninoff Biography

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Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (Russian: , Sergej Vasil’evi? Rahmaninov, April 1, 1873 (N.S.) or March 20, 1873 (O.S.) – March 28, 1943) was a Russian composer, pianist, and conductor. ("Sergei Rachmaninoff" was the spelling the composer himself used while living in the West throughout the latter half of his life. However, alternative transliterations of his name include Sergey or Serge, and Rachmaninov, Rachmaninow, Rakhmaninov or Rakhmaninoff.)

Rachmaninoff is regarded as one of the most influential pianists of the twentieth century. He had legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover the interval of a thirteenth on the keyboard (a hand span of approximately twelve inches). His large handspan roughly corresponded with his height; Rachmaninoff was 6 feet 6 inches (1.98m) tall [1]. He also had the ability to play complex compositions upon first hearing. Many recordings were made by the Victor Talking Machine Company recording label of Rachmaninoff's performing his own music, as well as works from the standard repertory.

His reputation as a composer, on the other hand, has generated controversy since his death. The 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians notoriously dismissed his music as "monotonous in texture ... consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes ..." and predicted that his popular success was "not likely to last". [2] To this, Harold C. Schoenberg, in his Lives of the Great Composers, responded, "It is one of the most outrageously snobbish and even stupid statements ever to be found in a work that is supposed to be an objective reference." Indeed, not only have Rachmaninoff's works become part of the standard repertory, but their popularity among both musicians and audiences had, if anything, increased during the second half of the twentieth century, with some of his symphonies and other orchestral works, songs and choral music recognized as masterpieces alongside the more familiar piano works.

His compositions include, among others, four piano concerti, three symphonies, two piano sonatas, three operas, a choral symphony (The Bells, based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), the All-Night Vigil for unaccompanied choir (often known as Rachmaninoff's Vespers), the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, 24 Preludes (including the famous Prelude in C-sharp minor), 17 Études-tableaux, Symphonic Dances and many songs, of which the most famous are "V molchanyi nochi taynoi" ("In the silence of night") and the wordless Vocalise. Most of his pieces are in a melancholy, late Romantic style akin to Tchaikovsky, although strong influences of Chopin and Liszt are apparent. Further inspiration included the music of Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Medtner (whom he considered the greatest contemporary composer and who, according to Schoenberg's Lives, returned the compliment by imitating him) and Henselt.

Rachmaninoff wrote five works for piano and orchestra: four concerti, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Of the concerti, the Second and Third are the most popular, and are considered to be in the upper echelon of the virtuoso Romantic piano concerto literature. The Third, in particular, has the reputation of being the most difficult concerto in the entire repertoire, and is a favorite among virtuoso pianists, although the Second also requires a complete command of the instrument.

Rachmaninoff's style is fundamentally Russian: his music shows the influence of the idol of his youth, Tchaikovsky. His harmonic language expanded above and beyond that of Tchaikovsky, however. Rachmaninoff's frequently used motifs include the Dies Irae, often just the fragments of the first phrase: this is especially prevalent in The Bells, The Isle of the Dead, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and in all three Symphonies. The Second Symphony, in particular, has a marvelous and little known occurrence of the Dies Irae: in the second movement he uses it as the basis for the harmony in counterpoint to one of his archetypal soaring melodies.

Also especially important is the use of bell-like sounds: this occurs in many pieces, most notably in the cantata The Bells, the Second Piano Concerto and the B minor prelude. He was also fond of Russian Orthodox chants. He uses them most obviously in his Vespers, but many of his melodies found their origins in these chants. The opening melodies of the First Symphony is derived from chants. (Note that the opening melody of the Third Piano Concerto is not derived from chants, which is a misconception many musicians have in mind. Rachmaninoff, when asked, said that it had written itself.)

In scherzo-like movements, he often used a modified rondo form, usually opening with a light, swift rhythmical idea, then supplying a breath of fresh air in the form of a beautifully romantic melody, to then end the piece in a similar scherzo-fashion. Examples of this may be found in the last movement of the Second Concerto, the scherzo of the Cello Sonata, and the scherzo of the Second Symphony. He also frequently employed the fugue as a developmental device.

Rachmaninoff had great command of counterpoint and fugal writing. The above-mentioned occurrence of the Dies Irae in the Second Symphony is but a small example of this. Very characteristic of his writing is chromatic counterpoint.

His later works, such as the Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 40, 1926) and the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (Op. 42, 1931), are composed in a more emotionally detached style, making them less popular with audiences despite the striking originality of the music. In these later compositions, Rachmaninoff sought a greater sense of compression and motivic development in his works at the expense of melody. Nevertheless, some of his most beautiful (nostalgic and melancholy) melodies occur in the Third Symphony, Paganini Rhapsody, and Symphonic Dances, the last-named of which is considered his swan song, and which has references to the Alliluya of the Vespers and the first theme of his First Symphony (neither of which would have been recognized by most hearers at the premiere). Rachmaninoff ended some of his major works musically with a rhythmic pattern - a long, two shorts and a long (as in the endings of the Second and Third Piano Concertos) or three shorts and a long (as in the ending of the Second Symphony), which is sometimes thought to relate to the prononunciation of his surname (RACH-man-in-OFF).

Rachmaninoff's pianism is generally considered among the finest of the twentieth century. It displayed features characteristic of the Russian school of piano playing: effortless technical ability; interpretative freedom that is now frowned on; creative freedom in dynamics and phrasing.

Bruce Beresford was signed in March 2006 to direct a feature film based on Rachmaninoff's life, as seen through the eyes of his widow. It is to be called Rhapsody. [4]
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