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From the outside, looking in
Sergey Rachmaninov could be said to be a displaced individual in various senses of the word. Born in Russia, he spent most of his life outside of it. Musically, he was born in the late Romantic era, yet he resisted the developments of the time, such as the transitions to modernism. His trademark was his scowl - and as he was nearly six-and-a-half feet in stature, that scowl seemed to carry more weight behind it.
Like Ludwig van Beethoven, he had a difficult childhood. Rachmaninov had been born into a wealthy background but his father had not managed it well, so the young musician found his family left with nothing at the age of nine. And despite what one may feel about starting children young on lessons, Rachmaninov's piano lessons actually began at the age of twelve. It was through his piano teachers that he also turned to composing. His most acclaimed work, the Prelude in C-sharp minor, was written when he turned nineteen in 1892. And while his first opera Aleko received a similar positive response a year later, his first symphony was ruined when the conductor, Alexander Glazunov, turned up tanked up on vodka and conducted its premiere while under the influence, triggering the young composer's nervous breakdown, an episode which would cause Rachmaninov to lose his faith in his compositional abilities for years.
The political instability in Russia at the time caused Rachmaninov to spend extended periods performing outside the country. He toured America in 1909, and after the 1917 Revolution he left his homeland for the last time.
Rachmaninov realised, if somewhat shrewdly, that the financial worries of being a musician that had stalked him could be resolved in America. There he could make a living from performing alone, and his last years were indeed spent largely on performing. In the last twenty-five years of his life, he produced just a few works, such as his fourth piano concerto.
Among some of the more celebrated Rachmaninov works are his second piano sonata. Written sometime in 1913, it became a mainstay of his concert performances. The opening has been described as "rugged and declamatory", somewhat recalling a bare landscape, but as it progresses through Romantic harmonies it leads to a wild, jubilatory finish, a freneticism that displays the piano virtuosity that Rachmaninov was known for. The second piano sonata is worth listening to, because - like the first - it is not often performed due to the exacting demands made on the pianist.
Like Bach, Debussy and many other composers, Rachmaninov also wrote a set of Preludes. They are a set of miniatures in every major and minor key (like Bach's and unlike Debussy's). Many of them are built on rhythmic patterns which lead to a melodic pattern strongly influenced on the rhythm. They are frequently percussive and perhaps allowed Rachmaninov to demonstrate his strength at playing rhythmic chords at the piano.
It has been suggested that Rachmaninov's enormous hands were the result of a rare bone disease, but these allowed him to play pieces that other pianists might find difficult with a bit more ease. Perhaps he would have been the envy of Robert Schumann, whose performing career was cut short due to a hand injury.
Rachmaninov never returned to Russia again, but that is not to say he ever forgot it. In a sense he was like the celebrated pianist and composer, Frederic Chopin, who was born in Poland but spent a large part of his life outside it, in Paris. Despite living in America for the rest of his life, Rachmaninov's longing for his homeland was apparent. His last home in America was a complete replica of his home in Moscow.
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