"I write the music which I hear playing inside me... I am a Russian composer, therefore my temperament, outlook and music are quintessentially Russian..." - Rachmaninov Sergey
Rachmaninov is widely regarded as one of the greatest 20th century composers and pianists. He left behind a large number of piano concertos, etudes, sonatas, variations and, of course, his world-famous “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for piano and orchestra. Rachmaninov was born on an estate at Oneg near the northwestern city of Novgorod into a noble and musical family of Tatar descent that had been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century. His parents were both amateur pianists, and he had his first piano lessons with his mother on their family estate. His mother pushed him to start playing the piano at age four. His grandfather had been a pupil of John Field. When Sergey was nine, financial difficulties forced the family to sell their estate and move to St. Petersburg, where Sergey took piano lessons at the Conservatory. But, the Conservatory was not a great help to Rachmaninov because of a mix-up in his ability, and he did not learn much. His grandmother noticed this and exposed Sergey to church music, encouraging him to think of music as a pleasure. In 1888 Rachmaninov began to study piano with Siloti and composition with Sergey Taneyev and Anton Arensky. It should be noted that in his younger days Rachmaninov was found to be quite lazy, failing most of his classes and spending much time skating. But his teachers were absolutely amazed by his wonderful memory; he had only to look at sheet music once to be able to play a piece by heart.
In 1891 Rachmaninov graduated cum laude from the Moscow Conservatory and his name was later written in gold letters on a memorial plaque that still graces the conservatory's front wall. Even before his graduation as a pianist in 1891, Rachmaninov had composed what was to become his best-known work, the “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” With this work, written at the age of 19, Rachmaninov became famous almost overnight. The piano piece also established the general style and mood of his music: rather dark, melancholy, and brooding. His graduation as a composer came in 1892. He was awarded a gold medal for his Pushkin opera “Aleko,” the first of only three operas he ever wrote. Reminiscing about the composition of “Aleko,” Rachmaninov wrote: "The moment I was given the libretto for ‘Aleko’ I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me. I was afraid of losing even a minute… Burning with impatience, I felt already how the music for Pushkin's verses was rising and boiling over in me."
The extraordinary musical gifts of Sergey Rachmaninov and the unique, multi-faceted talent of Feodor Chaliapin (famed for his abilities as an artist and sculptor as well as for his singing and acting) came together many times in both their personal and professional lives. Rachmaninov dedicated his vocal compositions to Chaliapin, accompanied the great singer and was one of the few conductors whose directions Chaliapin followed without demur. As a colleague and a friend, Rachmaninov exerted a great influence on Chaliapin's development as a musician. Reciprocally, Rachmaninov might never have created many of his best vocal compositions without the inspiration of Chaliapin's phenomenal singing. Chaliapin was the first to perform many of Rachmaninov's romances and in 1899 he gave a masterful performance in the title role of Rachmaninov's youthful one-act opera “Aleko,” which six years earlier had enjoyed a brilliant success upon its premiere at the Bolshoi Theater, winning the warm approval of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
Chaliapin loved to perform with Rachmaninov, who accompanied the singer with particular joy, "enjoying his performance, supplementing it, accompanying him wonderfully. For several years in a row, Muscovites were able to enjoy the unique and unrepeatable concerts of these two artists appearing together and thrilling audiences with their incomparable performing," according to the composer's cousin Satina. At the turn of the century, on a January day in 1900, Chaliapin and Rachmaninov went together to visit Leo Tolstoy, where (though both reportedly were almost paralyzed by shyness) they performed several songs for him. In his book “Man and Mask,” Chaliapin recalled this period of their friendship:
“Destiny threw me in the way of a great many remarkable men. My meeting with Sergey Rachmaninov dates back to the first stirring memories of my life in Moscow… A remarkable pianist, Rachmaninov is, with Toscanini, one of the best conductors I have ever heard. When Rachmaninov holds the baton, he inspires complete confidence in a singer. He interprets the very soul of a composition with the utmost delicacy, and if a pause or a suspended note is required, the singer may be sure that he will indicate them perfectly. When he is at the piano, I am not singing alone, we are both singing. As a composer, he is the personification of simplicity, clarity, and sincerity.”
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