Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Early Life (1873-92)

Sergei Rachmaninoff was born on March 20, 1873. His mother, Lubov, was a rich aristocrat; his father, Vasily, was an army officer. The family lived in Semyonovo, Russia, near Novgorod. Novgorod was an old and culturally important city.

Rachmaninoff’s parents both played the piano. His mother started teaching him how to play when he was four years old. When he was nine, a piano teacher from St. Petersburg, Anna Ornatskaya, was hired to teach him. She did so until 1885. By then his father had lost all of the family’s money. The house in Semyonovo was sold to pay his debts and the family moved to St. Petersburg.

Rachmaninoff got a scholarship to attend the conservatory (college of music) in St. Petersburg. Soon an epidemic of diphtheria broke out and his sister Sofia died. Then his father ran away. Rachmaninoff was so distracted that he failed all his exams. His teachers told his mother that he should study music in Moscow. She agreed with them and sent him to study at the conservatory there.

In Moscow Rachmaninoff lived in the home of his piano teacher Nicolai Zverev. Zverev was very strict. It was just this strictness, however, that got Rachmaninoff to focus on music. Rachmaninoff later said that Zverev taught him how to stop being lazy.

Rachmaninoff was outstanding in both playing the piano and writing music. While at school in Moscow, he won a gold medal for his one-act opera Aleko. He based it on Alexander Pushkin’s The Gypsies. It premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in 1893.

At this time Rachmaninoff also composed his First Piano Concerto and a set of compositions for piano called Morceaux de fantaisie (1892). Included in this set was the “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” Copies of this prelude sold widely in Russia, Western Europe, and America. This made Rachmaninoff famous as a composer. People asked him to play this prelude so much that he got tired of it.

While studying music in Moscow, Rachmaninoff met Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky encouraged him and gave him advice.

Rachmaninoff graduated from Moscow Conservatory in 1892. He shared the gold medal for piano with two other students.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.