Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Rachmaninoff at 150

The composer who wrote straight from the heart


Published: 28 Aug 2023

Time taken : >15mins

Some pieces of music are so memorable when one encounters them serendipitously. It could be the song that was playing on the radio in the cab after you found out that your dog had died, or the song in the café where you sat nursing a cold coffee after a breakup—and you find yourself going back to listen time and again, just because the music seems to understand what you’re going through and seems to offer comfort.

When I was away in the UK for studies (and music streaming was in its infancy), a friend sent me a CD in winter; one track on it made me feel a terrible sense of homesickness upon listening. While it wasn’t exactly a sense of missing home, I felt the intense nostalgia of being away—and apart from my loved ones. It was probably a combination of the cold, the long nights, and having my housemates all away for the holidays. That particular track was the Andante from Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata, which, along with the rest of the sonata, contains some of the most exquisitely lush and beautiful writing for both cello and piano.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about Rachmaninoff's music. UK-based classical music website Classic FM holds an annual poll for the world to vote on the top 300 pieces in classical music. Called the Classic FM Hall of Fame, these pieces are then compiled into a list and the results are published around April. With possible choices that range from Mozart to Morricone, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18 has consistently landed itself in the top five since the chart began in 1996, even topping the list nine times, including this year 2023, the 150th birth anniversary of the composer.

Who was Rachmaninoff, and what is it about his music that makes people feel this way?

Fellow Russian composer Stravinsky famously called him the "six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl", and music critic Harold Schonberg described him as a “tall, dour, lank, unsmiling figure…with its seamed face and head of close-cropped (almost shaved) hair” who “invariably reminded the public of a convict on the loose.” 1 Yet, others who knew him spoke of his great sense of humour and generosity, especially towards Russian musicians in exile in his later years.2

The year was 1873. Alexander II was in charge in Russia. The arts was flourishing, Tchaikovsky was composing and teaching in the Moscow Conservatory; and the Russian Five were based in St Petersburg. Rachmaninoff was born into an aristocratic and musical family (his grandfather was taught by John Field, the original creator of the nocturne).  He grew up in the beautiful Russian countryside estates his mother brought into the marriage as dowry, and learnt the piano from his mother. Upon finding that he had an aptitude for both composing and playing the piano at an early age, the family hired Anna Ornatskaya, a recent graduate of the St Petersburg Conservatory, as a live-in teacher to continue his music education. 

A series of unfortunate events

Tragedy befell Rachmaninoff’s family in 1882 when he was nine years of age: his father fell into great debt, and the family "had to sell the five estates one by one to pay his debts due to his financial incompetence"3.  The family was forced to move from the picturesque countryside into a small flat in St Petersburg.

Since the family’s fall from grace, a military career for Sergei would have been too expensive to pursue, and his father decided that he should be prepared for a musical education and career. Anna Ornatskaya began preparing him for entry into the St Petersburg College of Music, even procuring him a scholarship to study under her own teacher, Professor Cross. Further tragedy struck in 1883: he lost his sister Sofia to diphtheria, and his father left the family for Moscow, leaving him and other siblings under the care of his maternal grandmother.

Two years later, his sister Helena died of pernicious anaemia. She was a beautiful contralto responsible for many of Rachmaninoff’s musical influences in his childhood, including introducing him to the works of Tchaikovsky. 

Music of the Russian church

The years spent under the care of his grandmother in St Petersburg had another great influence on his musical development. Being "very religious", she brought young Rachmaninoff to attend the various services in different churches in the city, spending "hours standing in the beautiful St. Petersburg churches: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Kasan Cathedral, and other old places of worship in all quarters of the town". In these, he experienced Russian Orthodox Church music from the best choirs in St Petersburg, admitting that he "took less interest in God and religious worship than in the singing, which was of unrivalled beauty".4

Lessons at the St Petersburg Conservatoire proved useless, and plans were made for Rachmaninoff to travel to Moscow Conservatoire to study under a stricter teacher. He spent his last summer of freedom at his grandmother’s estate ‘Borissovo’ in the district of Novgorod, amidst nature: meadows, fields, woods, and the River Volchov. Rachmaninoff spent hours floating on a boat listening to the strange, compelling tolling of Vesper bells from Norvgorod as they drifted into the countryside.

The sounds he heard and musical times spent with his grandmother laid the foundation of Rachmaninoff’s knowledge and exceptional command over the technique of phrasing in Russian church singing, to which we owe some of his most beautiful compositions in that genre.

The viral hit

Rachmaninoff was 18 years of age when he graduated from Moscow Conservatory with top honours in 1891. Shortly after graduation, he wrote his Prelude in C# minor which catapulted him to worldwide fame, but he had grown to loathe.

Built upon a tolling, three-note figure in the bass answered ominously by offbeat chords, the repetition becomes increasingly agitated, exploding into a tumultuous middle section. The virtuosic triplets rise, building up to a reprise of the original theme in a grander and bigger form. The music is put together from the simplest of materials—just three notes—yet it is dark, stirring, as if trudging on from an inescapable fate. Rachmaninoff’s later music such as the Piano Concertos 2 and 3 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini encapsulate these emotions, showing the Prelude to be a direct ancestor to these works and Rachmaninoff’s style.

The premiere of the Prelude in C# Minor at a concert during Moscow’s Electric Convention went well enough, but it was only after Rachmaninoff’s cousin, the pianist Alexander Siloti started performing the work in his concert tours overseas that its popularity skyrocketed. By the time Rachmaninoff played it in London in 1899, everyone had the score and was trying to play it. They demanded him to play it as an encore if it was not in the programme to the point that he remarked, “Many, many times I wish I had never written it.” This was the same for other places in Europe and America, where many knew the name ‘Rachmaninoff’ from the bold typeface on the Prelude score, which had been outselling the other hits from New York’s Tin Pan Alley. 

As much as he hated the work, he was impressed with this one version of it. In 1942, Rachmaninoff went to Walt Disney Studios and was treated to this short clip made in 1929. Upon watching it, he remarked “I have heard my inescapable piece done marvellously by some of the best pianists, and murdered cruelly by amateurs, but never was I more stirred than by the performance of the great maestro Mouse.”5

Depression and recovery

Although not entirely his fault, the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was so disastrous that it haunted him for the rest of his life. The public rejected it, and critic César Cui harshly reviewed in 1897 that it was far too modern, music that "leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form...the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes".6

Such was his depression after the fiasco that he sought hypnotherapy treatment from a Dr Nikolai Dahl and was apparently unable to write another piece of music for three whole years (although this was dismissed by the composer’s grandson Alexander Rachmaninoff, citing an infatuation for Dr Dahl’s daughter as the reason for his continued treatment). Even if partially true, Rachmaninoff dedicated his next large-scale work to Dr Dahl: the Second Piano Concerto, which had come to be his most celebrated work, even though its early reception was mixed. 

Set in the key of C minor, the opening chords are sombre and expansive, building up to a cadence where the piano then sweeps like a pendulum through the orchestra—as if a train coming from a distance, billowing steam and whooshing past the platform. 

This was the very scene at the start of David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter, where two married people who meet by accident agree to halt a doomed love affair and part, rather than tear their families apart. Throughout the movie the concerto perfectly encapsulates what the protagonists are feeling; the music speaks where there are no words, conveying their longing for what cannot be in a passionate, exquisite and all-consuming way.

Other movies on love and affairs—Frank Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You which premiered the year after in 1946 and Billy Wilder’s 1955 The Seven Year Itch (which immortalised Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway grate scene) also relied on Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.  It’s not just the love stories—the music was used in 1944 propaganda film Tunisian Victory. Perhaps its enduring popularity can be attributed to the emotional immediacy that grips the listener, music that is melancholic, instantly memorable, and as pianist Stephen Hough puts it, flows so naturally that it sounds as if it wrote itself.

The escape from Russia and move to America

Rachmaninoff married his cousin Natalya soon after the Second Piano Concerto was premiered, and set up an idyllic home in Ivanoka with their two daughters. He spent the next 15 years travelling and performing in winters, playing concerts in Europe and America; and composing in Ivanoka in the summers, building up the bourgeois life for his family that had been taken from him in childhood. 

These were abruptly halted in the wake of the Russian Revolution in 1917, where Rachmaninoff saw the Bolsheviks’ "brutal uprooting of all the foundations of art, and senseless destruction of all means for its encouragement left no hope for a normal life in Russia."7  Taking advantage of an invitation to perform in Sweden, the Rachmaninoff family gathered a few of their possessions and a bit of money, leaving everything else behind. An overcrowded train ride and a peasant sleigh ride later, they were in Sweden on Christmas eve of 1917, emotionally drained in a foreign land amidst the Swedes, who were celebrating the holiday with abandon, not knowing anything about the revolutions and war.

At the age of 45, Rachmaninoff had to rebuild his life from scratch yet again. He decided that the best course of action was to be a professional concert pianist, having received numerous invitations to perform with great success. Thus, he devoted all his time and energy into practising and performing, leaving little space for composition. As a pianist, he was regarded as the finest among the many great soloists of that era, with his tall figure, impressive stage presence, and playing posture which showed him perfectly still at the keyboard, his movements only in his fingers and hands, which struck all the notes with great clarity and precision.

The Rachmaninoffs moved to Copenhagen, then America, but built Villa Senar (named after SErgei and NAtalya Rachmaninoff) in Switzerland on the Lake Lucerne in an attempt to remember the Ivanovka estate he left in Russia.

It was in the Villa Senar in the 1930s that Rachmaninoff composed his last major works, his Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances for orchestra, and the much-celebrated Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for solo piano and orchestra.

Instead of a fifth piano concerto (because receptions to his fourth piano concerto were lukewarm at best), Rachmaninoff took Paganini’s most popular theme and put together 24 variations on it, structuring it in a larger, more traditional symphonic four-movement form. Amidst a theme from a virtuoso violinist who was said to have a pact with the devil, and the medieval liturgical Dies irae tune used in funeral requiems (found in variations 7, 10 and 24), the heart of this work is its 18th variation, where Rachmaninoff ingeniously inverts the main melody, changes it into a major key, and writes a swooning, sappy, heart-on-your-sleeve love song.

Needless to say, this most original variation was a hit with Hollywood, and most notably used in two of the best time travel / love story movies, Somewhere in Time (1980) and Groundhog Day (1993). 

Bypassing intellect for emotion, and communicating straight to the listener’s heart—therein lies the tremendous appeal of Rachmaninoff’s music. Summing up his musical philosophy, Rachmaninoff said, "In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music… What I try to do when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious."

For all the music that you gave us, straight from your heart to ours, thank you and happy 150th birthday, Sergei Rachmaninoff!


Schonberg, Harold, The Lives of the Great Composers. 3rd edn. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997
Swan, Katherine, and A. J. Swan. Rachmaninoff: Personal Reminiscences–Part II. The Musical Quarterly, 30(2), 1944. Pp. 174-191
Rachmaninoff's Recollections Told to Oskar Von Risemann, New York: Macmillan, 1934.
4 Ibid.
5 Raykoff, Ivan, Dreams of Love: Playing the Romantic Pianist. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. P 14.
As written in The News and Exchange Gazette, on 17 March 1897.
Rachmaninoff's Recollections Told to Oskar Von Risemann, New York: Macmillan, 1934. Pp. 185 - 186.

At the Esplanade Concert Hall, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra presents Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 2 and Symphony 2 on 12 Jan 2024, and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto 3 and Symphony 3 on 18 & 19 Jan 2024.

French pianist Alexandre Kantorow performs Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 20 Feb 2024.

Contributed by:

Natalie Ng

Natalie Ng is a musicologist, educator and arts administrator. She plays three instruments, but preferably not all at the same time.

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN