Listening to the sumptuous splendour of the concertos he wrote for the piano, or the simple beauty of the melodic line that tows his Vocalise into every music lover’s heart, you’d imagine that Sergei Rachmaninoff was somebody like Mendelssohn – equipped with a silver spoon from the start, all set to sail through a life untroubled.
In some respects, yes, but in others, the comparison falls quickly away.
Just like Mendelssohn, whose extended family owned a bank, Rachmaninoff (who favoured this spelling as opposed to “Rachmaninov”) was born into prosperity.
His father was an officer in the Imperial Guard whose own father had had piano lessons from none other than that Irishman abroad John Field, inventor of the Nocturne.
Sergei’s mother was the daughter of a wealthy army general whose dowry included no fewer than five country estates.
The Mendelssohns managed money well. Things were rather different for the Rachmaninoffs.
The old boy was rather too fond of playing the high roller – a gambler and a womaniser, with a fondness for the hard stuff.
One by one, the estates had to be sold off, and the family ended up in modest surroundings in a cramped apartment in St Petersburg.
Sergei survived an outbreak of diphtheria which took the life of an elder sister. Another also died in childhood.
He needed a scholarship to get into the Conservatory in Moscow. Things were so tight he had to live in his teacher’s apartment.
Though he was a star student, misfortune seems to have had a way of dogging him wherever he turned. It was always a case of one step forward and two steps back.
Despite a bright start to his composing career – a first piano concerto written at the age of 17 placed him on a path of musical excellence – what should have been the crowning glory of his early years became a millstone round his neck.
His first symphony was eagerly awaited, and would be unveiled in St Petersburg. The highly respected composer Alexander Glazunov – a favourite of Rachmaninoff – was engaged to conduct the premiere. This was a mistake.
Glazunov didn’t rate the music, couldn’t be bothered to rehearse the orchestra properly, and when he took to the podium on the night, he’d obviously had one, if not two, too many.
The performance was a disaster, the reviews damning. Rachmaninoff, just about to turn 24, was devastated.
The symphony was never performed again in his lifetime. He couldn’t think about writing anything else.
He continued on the concert stage as a pianist – he was quite brilliant, with a prodigious hand span, renowned for the clarity of his playing – and turned his hand to conducting. But as far as composing was concerned, that was that.
At the urging of his wife, he eventually underwent hypnosis. That cured his writer’s block.
He returned in triumph with the breathtaking Piano Concerto No.3, performing it for the first time on a Sunday afternoon in New York in 1909.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was tall and slim, by all accounts a man whose successes weren’t reflected in his demeanour. His contemporary, Igor Stravinsky, famously referred to him as a six-and-a-half foot scowl.
But for a man who never got over his homesickness for Russia, any melancholy would have had a sound basis.
Driven out by the Revolution in 1917, he eventually found peace and creative space on the shores of Lake Lucerne in Switzerland.
He and his wife built their idyll there, a villa called ‘Senar’, abbreviations of their names, Sergei and Natalia, together with the “R” from Rachmaninoff.
With World War II looming, they couldn’t stay, and left in August 1939, never to return.
Sergei Rachmaninoff died in California in 1943, just days before his 70th birthday.