Sergey Vassilievich Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
One of the last great representatives of Romanticism, composer Sergey Rachmaninov was also recognized a one of the finest pianists and conductors of his day.
Born into an impoverished family of the Russian aristocracy, he was sent to study music at the St Petersburg Conservatory, then to Moscow, where he displayed great skill in both piano and composition. He graduated, together with his friend Alexander Scriabine, from the piano class in 1891, completing his First Piano Concerto.
In Moscow, he also met Piotr I. Tchaikovsky who was an important mentor to him until his sudden death in 1893.
Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, premiered in 1897, was not well received and his disappointment turned into a three-year period of depression during which he was not able to compose anything.
In 1900, he started therapy with the famous psychologist Nicolai Dahl. Under his care, he was quickly able to overcome his writer’s block. In gratitude, he dedicated to Dr. Dahl his Concerto No 2, completed in 1901.
His spirits were further bolstered in 1902, when, against the long time objection of the Orthodox Church, he finally married his cousin Natalia Satina and went back to intense composition.
In 1904, Rachmaninov was offered the position of conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre, but resigned in 1906. His daughter’s illness made the family move to Dresden, Germany, for the next three years, where he composed his Second Symphony, his First Piano Sonata, and the symphonic poem “The Isle of the Dead”.
In 1909, he made his first tour of the United States as a pianist, an event for which he composed the Piano Concerto No 3.
For the next few years, he spent the summers in his country estate and composed a lot, notably his Second Piano Sonata and 14 Songs.
The 1917 Russian Revolution put an end forever to life as he knew it in Russia. Having lost his estate and livelihood, he left for Scandinavia with his wife and two daughters with little else than a few notebooks of his compositions.
In 1918, he was again invited to tour in the United States, where he gave 40 concerts in a four-months period. In 1921, he bought a house in the United States, and divided his time between Europe and the U.S. Between 1918 and his death in 1943, Rachmaninov composed only six pieces.
His inspiration, which he seems to have lost when he left Russia, was revived after he built himself a home on Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland, which reminded him of his old family estate and where he spent summers from 1932 to 1939.
There, in 1934, he composed one of his best-known works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. In 1935-36, he composed his Symphony No 3, and in 1940, his last work, the Symphonic Dance.
Rachmaninov fell ill during a concert tour in late 1942 and was diagnosed with advanced melanoma. Unable to finish the tour, he had to return home in Los Angeles. He died on 28 March 1943 in Beverly Hills, just before his 70th birthday.
He wanted to be buried at his estate in Switzerland but the conditions of WW II did not allow the fulfillment of his wish. He is interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
Rachmaninov’s most famous compositions include five works for piano and orchestra, the four concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, three symphonies, twenty-three Preludes and two Sonatas for piano solo.
He also wrote works for two pianos, piano four hands, choral works and three operas
Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein (1829 – 1894)
A child prodigy, pianist, conductor and composer Anton Rubinstein made his first public appearance in Moscow at the age of 9. Sent to Paris in 1849, he was heard by Liszt who acclaimed him as his successor and advised that he also study composition.
After spending four years (1844-48) in Berlin and Vienna where he gave piano lessons to support his studies, he came back to Russia where, by 1852, he had become a leading figure in St Petersburg’s musical life, performing, conducting and composing assiduously. In 1854, he began a most successful 4-year concert tour of Europe.
Back in Russia, he founded in 1859 the Russian Musical Society and opened in 1862 the St Petersburg Conservatory, the first music school in Russia.
In 1867, touring again in Europe, he was invited by the Steinway piano company to tour in the United States. He gave 215 concerts in eight months in the 1872-73 season, earning an unheard-of fee of $200 per concert that gave him financial security for the rest of his life.
He returned from tours to Russia in 1887 but left again in 1891 over serious disagreements about the management of the Conservatory and settled in Dresden, coming back to Russia only occasionally. He gave his last concert in St Petersburg in January 1894 and died a few months later.
A prolific composer much influenced by Schumann and Mendelssohn, Rubinstein wrote 20 operas, 5 piano concertos, 6 symphonies, numerous solo piano works, chamber music ensembles and songs.