Everybody Loves Sergei

As we prepare for our upcoming concert, Michael Francis Conducts Rachmaninoff, we look at some of the top ten things that we love about the late composer.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, editing his Piano Concert No. 3, c. 1910.
  1. Sergei’s a Romantic. Born in 1873, Sergei grew up in the last phase of the Romantic period. Music of the period was full of emotion and drama, with Russian composers like Rimsky-Korsakov adding folk music influences into their composition. The music of the era directly impacted Sergei’s musical style.
  2. Height is Everything. At a time when the average height was between 5’5 and 5’7, Rachmaninoff stood at a towering 6’6!
  3. He was blue-blooded. Sergei was born into a Russian aristocratic family. The Rachmaninoff’s lineage stretched back to the House of Dragos, medieval rulers of Moldovia and Wallachia. The family’s founder was Prince Vasile, nicknamed Rachmanin – Old Russian for ‘lazy.’
  4. Sergei had a devilish streak. In the 1880s, Sergei became much more relaxed while attending Moscow Conservatory, preferring to participate in social events instead. It was also reported he altered his report cards. And while his performances at these events gained the attention of well-connected people – including a member of the Imperial Family – he eventually failed out of school.
  5. But he wrote musically. Rachmaninoff’s first romance was Vera, the youngest daughter from a neighborhood family. But her mother objected to their letters; Sergei decided to write to Vera’s older sister, Natalia. Whether directly or not, their notes coincide with many of Sergei’s earliest works – full of passion and harmony far advance from when he began studying music.
  6. Sergei never let the critics get him down. Sort of. Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 1 premiere in 1897 was not well-received, panned by many critics including César Cui. Though he would go on to write fantastic compositions, including Concerto No. 3, he fell into a state of depression that lasted for three years. He recovered after received professional help from Nikolai Dahl, a family friend, physician, and amateur musician.
  7. Sergei returned with a vengeance. Dedicated to his physician, Rachmaninoff composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1900, and first performed in 1901. The piece was so well-received that he was awarded the Glinka Prize, given to talented Russian musicians, and a cash prize in 1904. His fortunes turned on the upswing soon after.
  8. Rachmaninoff was well-traveled. In the early years of the 20th century, the offers poured in for Sergei to perform throughout Europe and the United States. Between 1906 and 1917, he traveled to Dresden, Boston, New York, Rome, London, Paris, and Switzerland.
  9. Tolerant of other people.In 1910 he became vice president of the Imperial Russian Musical Society. The position was a huge deal, as it not only raised his profile nationally but, through royal patronage, he could receive additional commissions for music. But when he learned of an administrator’s removal, because of their religious practices, in 1912, he resigned shortly after.
  10. Sergei was also political.He was performing in Moscow when the February Revolution began in 1917. Soon after he discovered the Revolutionaries seized his country retreat. The political tension gave him good reason to leave the country. In December of that year, he and his family left Saint Petersburg for Finland, carrying whatever they could pack in their suitcases. He remained critical of Russia’s cultural policies in the 1920s and 1930s. His views changed when Germany invaded Russia in the 1940s; he helped the Red Army’s war effort by donating funds from his concerts.
  11. Rachmaninoff’s music is something for all to enjoy. Of all his pieces, Sergei’s Piano Concerto No. 3 is the most dramatic, beautiful, challenging, and inspirational. Josef Hofmann, to whom the work is dedicated, refused to play it; Gary Graffman once said he didn’t know fear until learning this piece. Nevertheless, it is a worthy piece to perform and a delight to hear live.

MICHAEL FRANCIS CONDUCTS RACHMANINOFF
Apr. 11 & 13
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets: Purchase online or by phone at (585) 454-2100.

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