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Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3 (Alexis Weissenberg, piano) with sheet music
Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninoff (1 April [O.S. 20 March] 1873 – 28 March 1943) was a Russian composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor of the late Romantic period. The influence of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and other Russian composers is seen in his early works, later giving way to a personal style notable for song-like melodicism, expressiveness and rich orchestral colours.
Серге́й Васи́льевич Рахма́нинов (20 марта [1 апреля] 1873, Семёново, Новгородская губерния — 28 марта1943, Беверли-Хиллз, США) — русскийкомпозитор, пианист, дирижёр. Синтезировал в своём творчестве принципы петербургской и московской композиторских школ (а также смешение традиций западноевропейской и ближневосточной музыки) и создал свой оригинальный стиль.
Born into a musical family, Rachmaninoff took up the piano at the age of four. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892, having already composed several piano and orchestral pieces. In 1897, following the negative critical reaction to his Symphony No. 1, Rachmaninoff entered a four-year depression and composed little until successful supportive therapy allowed him to complete his enthusiastically received Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1901. In the course of the next sixteen years, Rachmaninoff conducted at the Bolshoi Theatre, relocated to Dresden, Germany, and toured the United States for the first time. Rachmaninoff often featured the piano in his compositions, and he explored the expressive possibilities of the instrument through his own skills as a pianist.
Following the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia. They settled in New York City in 1918. With his main source of income coming from piano and conducting performances, demanding tour schedules led to a reduction in his time for composition. Between 1918 and 1943, he completed just six works, including the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances. By 1942, his failing health led to his relocation to Beverly Hills, California. One month before his death from advanced melanoma, Rachmaninoff was granted American citizenship.
Rachmaninoff with a piano score
Rachmaninoff’s style was initially influenced by Tchaikovsky. By the mid-1890s, however, his compositions began showing a more individual tone. His First Symphony has many original features. Its brutal gestures and uncompromising power of expression were unprecedented in Russian music at the time. Its flexible rhythms, sweeping lyricism, and stringent economy of thematic material were all features he kept and refined in subsequent works.
Following the poor reception of the symphony and three years of inactivity, Rachmaninoff’s individual style developed significantly. He started leaning towards sumptuous harmonies and broadly lyrical, often passionate melodies. His orchestration became subtler and more varied, with textures carefully contrasted. Overall, his writing became more concise.
Especially important is Rachmaninoff’s use of unusually widely spaced chords for bell-like sounds: this occurs in many pieces, most notably in the choral symphony The Bells, the Second Piano Concerto, the E-flat major Étude-Tableaux (Op. 33, No. 7), and the B minor Prelude (Op. 32, No. 10). “It is not enough to say that the church bells of Novgorod, St Petersburg and Moscow influenced Rachmaninov and feature prominently in his music.
This much is self-evident. What is extraordinary is the variety of bell sounds and breadth of structural and other functions they fulfill.” He was also fond of Russian Orthodox chants. He used them most perceptibly in his Vespers, but many of his melodies found their origins in these chants. The opening melody of the First Symphony is derived from chants. (The opening melody of the Third Piano Concerto, on the other hand, is not derived from chants; when asked, Rachmaninoff said that “it had written itself”.)
Rachmaninoff’s frequently used motifs include the Dies Irae, often just the fragments of the first phrase. Rachmaninoff had great command of counterpoint and fugal writing, thanks to his studies with Taneyev. The above-mentioned occurrence of the Dies Irae in the Second Symphony (1907) is but a small example of this. Very characteristic of his writing is chromatic counterpoint.
This talent was paired with a confidence in writing in both large- and small-scale forms. The Third Piano Concerto especially shows a structural ingenuity, while each of the preludes grows from a tiny melodic or rhythmic fragment into a taut, powerfully evocative miniature, crystallizing a particular mood or sentiment while employing a complexity of texture, rhythmic flexibility and a pungent chromatic harmony.
His compositional style had already begun changing before the October Revolution deprived him of his homeland. The harmonic writing in The Bells was composed in 1913 but not published until 1920. This may have been due to Rachmaninoff’s main publisher, Gutheil, having died in 1914 and Gutheil’s catalog being acquired by Serge Koussevitsky. It became as advanced as in any of the works Rachmaninoff would write in Russia, partly because the melodic material has a harmonic aspect which arises from its chromatic ornamentation. Further changes are apparent in the revised First Piano Concerto, which he finished just before leaving Russia, as well as in the Op. 38 songs and Op. 39 Études-Tableaux.
In both these sets Rachmaninoff was less concerned with pure melody than with coloring. His near-Impressionist style perfectly matched the texts by symbolist poets. The Op. 39 Études-Tableaux are among the most demanding pieces he wrote for any medium, both technically and in the sense that the player must see beyond any technical challenges to a considerable array of emotions, then unify all these aspects.
The composer’s friend Vladimir Wilshaw noticed this compositional change continuing in the early 1930s, with a difference between the sometimes very extroverted Op. 39 Études-Tableaux (the composer had broken a string on the piano at one performance) and the Variations on a Theme of Corelli (Op. 42, 1931).
The variations show an even greater textural clarity than in the Op. 38 songs, combined with a more abrasive use of chromatic harmony and a new rhythmic incisiveness. This would be characteristic of all his later works—the Piano Concerto No. 4 (Op. 40, 1926) is composed in a more emotionally introverted style, with a greater clarity of texture. Nevertheless, some of his most beautiful (nostalgic and melancholy) melodies occur in the Third Symphony, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and Symphonic Dances.
Music theorist and musicologist Joseph Yasser, as early as 1951, uncovered progressive tendencies in Rachmaninoff’s compositions. He uncovered Rachmaninoff’s use of an intra-tonal chromaticism that stands in notable contrast to the inter-tonal chromaticism of Richard Wagner and strikingly contrasts the extra-tonal chromaticism of the more radical twentieth century composers like Arnold Schoenberg. Yasser postulated that a variable, subtle, but unmistakable characteristic use of this intra-tonal chromaticism permeated Rachmaninoff’s music.
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