This Week in Piano History: Happy 150th, Sergei!

A portrait of Rachmaninoff

THIS WEEK IN PIANO HISTORY, we celebrate the birth of composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff, born on April 1, 1873. Despite his enduring fame as a composer, Rachmaninoff was largely known in his day as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, touring around the world.

Rachmaninoff was most likely born in Oneg in the Novgorod region in the Russian Empire.1 He spent much of his childhood here, initially learning to play piano with his mother and then with pianist Anna Ornatskaya. A series of financial issues led the family to move to St. Petersburg, where he studied at the Conservatory with Vladimir Demyansky.2 Tragedy struck the Rachmaninoff family again when his sister died. A series of family problems related to the tragedy resulted in Rachmaninoff’s failure of his classes at the Conservatory.3 This led him to move to Moscow to study at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied with Nikolay Zverev. During this time, Rachmaninoff was able to intensely practice and study. As a result, he received the Gold Medal from the Moscow Conservatory in recognition of his outstanding works as a student.

In January 1895, Rachmaninoff began work on his first symphony, which was conducted by Glazunov in a concert in late 1896. The premiere performance did not go well, sending Rachmaninoff into a three-year period of inability to write any major compositions.4 During this time, Rachmaninoff pursued a new career as a conductor. He began conducting in 1897 at the Moscow Private Russian Opera, leading numerous performances of a varied assortment of Western operas.5 With time and the help of Dr. Nikolay Dahl, a specialist in hypnosis at the time, Rachmaninoff again turned to composition, composing his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor between 1900 and 1901.6 The success of this performance helped Rachmaninoff regain his footing as a composer.

Seong-jin Cho, Hannu Lintu, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18.
Rachmaninoff’s hands.

In 1917, Rachmaninoff and his family said goodbye to Russia for good, fleeing the country after its gradual descent into turmoil following World War I.7 Rachmaninoff initially settled in Stockholm and Copenhagen briefly, before moving to the United States in 1918. From then on Rachmaninoff spent time in New York, Los Angeles, and in an estate on Lake Lucerne which he named Senar.8 Throughout this time, Rachmaninoff revised a number of his works including the Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major. In 1943, his health began to rapidly deteriorate and he was diagnosed with cancer, dying on March 28,1943 in Los Angeles, just days before his sixtieth birthday.

Pianist Yuja Wang performs Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 36.

Rachmaninoff’s works for the piano have built him enduring fame both in Russia and around the world. One of Rachmaninoff’s most popular works for early-advanced pianists is his Prelude in C-sharp Minor, Op. 3, No. 2, written very early in his life. This work became an annoyance to Rachmaninoff who struggled to understand the undying popularity of this work when compared to some of his other more mature compositions. Perhaps his most well-known work of all is his Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, which was composed in 1908 for extensive tours in the United States the following year. The work established Rachmaninoff as a master of lyrical writing, motivic unity, as well as piano pyrotechnics.9

Yuchan Lim, Marin Alsop, and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30.

Interested in learning more about Rachmaninoff? Read this article by Laura Janota about Wael Farouk and the Rachmaninoff piano oeuvre.

  1. Geoffrey Norris, “Rachmaninoff [Rakhmaninov, Rachmaninov], Serge,” Grove Music Online, 2001, Accessed 20 Mar. 2023,
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.

Norris, Geoffrey. “Rachmaninoff [Rakhmaninov, Rachmaninov], Serge.” Grove Music Online. 2001; Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.

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