Composer of the Month: Sergei Rachmaninoff

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Hello, The California Conservatory guests, parents, and students! Each month we highlight an influential composer who was born that month, and during the month of April, we are celebrating Sergei Rachmaninoff! Born in April of 1873, Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer, conductor, and pianist known primarily for his contributions during the Romantic period. The Romantic period was a time in which composers and performers, above all else, aimed to evoke and depict deep, intense emotional feelings and Rachmaninoff certainly accomplished this.


Rachmaninoff’s talent manifested itself when he was only four years old and began playing the piano. Later, he attended and graduated from Moscow Conservatory during which he already had written sizable compositions including piano and orchestral pieces. Negative reviews of his first symphony sent Rachmaninoff into a deep depression. The death of his influence Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky only sent him deeper into depression and writer’s block. Rachmaninoff turned to giving piano lessons as a means of earning money. Times did not get better with the thwarting of his engagement to Natalia Satina by his parents and the Russian Orthodox church. This event, however, allowed him to write one of his Twelve Songs, Fate.

Recovery & Beyond

Rachmaninoff’s recovery did not come until he entered treatment for his depression. Months after therapy began, inspiration struck and he composed Piano Concerto No. 2 which earned him the prestigious Glinka Award. This success was only the first of many that would follow. Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Rachmaninoff’s largest piano composition, was subsequently completed. With musical success Rachmaninoff also enjoyed personal success, finally marrying Natalia Satina.

An Influential Conductor

In 1904, Rachmaninoff became the conductor of Bolshoi Theater. During this time he pioneered the tradition of conductors standing as they direct and perform, as well as the physical arrangement of orchestra players that we have today. During this time, he premiered two operas: The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini.

The Exodus & Return

Due to political unrest, Rachmaninoff left Russia for Germany. There he found inspiration, composed Symphony 2, and found success as a performer. Also during this time, he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 and traveled to New York City to perform it with Gustav Mahler and the New York Symphony. Rachmaninoff continued to perform and compose, and soon returned to Moscow to join the Imperial Russian Musical Society, but continued to travel with a highly successful concert tour in 1914 through England.

Emigration to the U.S.

Due to the Bolshevik party seizing his estate and another opportunity to tour, Rachmaninoff and his family left Russia and traveled across Europe, performing his works and composing new pieces as well. When he fell ill in 1942, Rachmaninoff emigrated to the U.S., eventually settling in Beverly Hills, California where he died at the age of 70, one month after after receiving citizenship.

A Life of Struggle, Success & Thoughtfulness

Rachmaninoff’s success and music are still loved today and there are too many notable works to mention in a short blog. Despite depression, doubt in his abilities, and some health issues and personal losses, he was able to live a life marked my musical and personal success. Though he had plenty of work, he still found time to support his fellow musicians, put together benefits for friends' widows, and start a publishing company. Rachmaninoff is a composer worthy of study and consideration.

The California Conservatory offers private piano lessons with theory classes, and recital opportunities to students of all ages in Menlo Park, Belmont, San Carlos, Redwood Shores, and Foster City at our Redwood City location. We also have a school in Santa Clara. If you or your child are interested in piano lessons, contact us today!