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Sergei Rachmaninoff – the sad knight of music
 
Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born to an aristocratic family of Russian and distant Moldovan descent, that had served the Russian Tsars since the 16th century and had strong musical and military traditions. The family owned five estates around Great Novgorod. He took piano lessons since early childhood, including three years of studying under a professional piano player, hired by his parents specifically to develop the boy's talents. The boy showed predisposition to classical music, possessing an excellent sense of rhythm, hearing and extremely large hands, which made it possible for him to easily perform even the largest of chords!
 
Later, he would become famous for the extremely large and complex "bell-like" chords employed by the composer in his works.
 
Sergei, spoilt by his grandmother and taking little interest in studying in general, flunked his school graduation exams, but in 1891 he was enrolled into Moscow Conservatory, easily passing his piano exams with flying colors. 
 
While staying in the countryside with his rich relatives (his father's financial incompetence and spending habits lead to the loss of all estates), Rachmaninoff  composed several songs and began what would later become his Piano Concerto No. 1. During his studies at the Conservatory he completed the Youth Symphony, Prince Rostislav, and The Rock.
 
On 11 February 1892 he gave his first ever independent concert, premiering his Trio élégiaque No. 1. And in May of the same year he presented his graduation composition for the Conservatory - Aleko, an opera based on one of Alexander Pushkin's works. It was so successful that the Bolshoi Theater agreed to produce it and even invite Feodor Chaliapin to sing. The opera brought Rachmaninoff the Great Gold Medal, that had been awarded only twice before, to Sergei Taneyev and Arseny Koreshchenko!
 
A string of successes was followed by the poor reception of his First Symphony, which caused the increasingly insecure Rachmaninoff, too sensitive to criticism, to fall into a period of deep depression that lasted three long years. In need of money, Rachmaninoff accepted the offer to become assistant conductor of the Moscow Private Russian Opera Company, founded by the famous patron of art, Moscow magnate Savva Mamontov. 
 
In 1898 he became engaged to Natalia Satina, whom he had known since childhood and who was his first cousin. The engagement was protested by their relatives and the Russian Orthodox Church, which caused a rebound of Rachmaninoff's depression. He even began a course of autosuggestive therapy with the famous psychologist Nikolai Dahl, successfully recovered and, in gratitude, dedicated his new Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor to his doctor. 
 
Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States in 1909, playing the piano and performing his own compositions, including the Piano Concerto No. 3. These performances made him a popular figure in America, and in 1917, after the Bolshevik coup that left him without his ancestral possessions, he immigrated to America via Finland. Since he did not have much after leaving Russia, Steinway presented him with one of their best pianos, which he would later use to a great effect.
 
An exhausting series of concerts, including 40 performances during a 4-month period in 1919-20, as well as homesickness, made him lose much of his inspiration, which returned only after he built his Villa Senar in Switzerland and regularly went there from 1932 to 1939 for vacations - it was there where he wrote Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of his best known works.
 
While living in America, Rachmaninoff attempted to recreate the aristocratic atmosphere of his childhood, buying a house in the countryside, employing Russian servants, regularly inviting Russian-speaking acquaintances and religiously observing old Russian customs.
 
His last completed work was Symphonic Dances (1940) - after that he concentrated on conducting, working with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In late 1942 Rachmaninoff fell ill during a concert tour and was diagnosed with advanced melanoma. His family was informed by the doctors, who chose not to disclose their troublesome findings to the patient himself. 
 
In February 1943 Rachmaninoff, still unaware of the lethal disease, and his wife became American citizens, and in March he died in his Beverly Hills, California, home, just four days before his 70th birthday. 
 
Sources:
Sergei Rachmaninoff, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda, New York University Press, 1956
Harrison, Max (2006). Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings. London: Continuum. 
Randel, Don M. (1999). The Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians
 

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