Just a recap….
ACHMANINOV born in Semyonovo, Russia, on April 1, 1873, is today remembered as one of the most formidable pianists of all time and the last truly great composer in the Russian Romantic tradition. Rachmaninov came from a music-loving, land-owning family; young Sergei’s mother fostered the boy’s innate talent by giving him his first piano lessons. After a decline in the family fortunes, the Rachmaninovs moved to St. Petersburg, where Sergei studied with Vladimir Delyansky at the Conservatory.
As his star continued to rise, Sergei went to the Moscow Conservatory, where he received a sound musical training: piano lessons from the strict disciplinarian Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti (Rachmaninov‘s cousin), counterpoint with Taneyev, and harmony with Arensky. During his time at the Conservatory, Rachmaninov boarded with Zverev, whose weekly musical Sundays provided the young musician the valuable opportunity to make important contacts and to hear a wide variety of music.
As Rachmaninov’s conservatory studies continued, his burgeoning talent came into full flower; he received the personal encouragement of Tchaikovsky, and, a year after earning a degree in piano, took the Conservatory’s gold medal in composition for his opera Aleko (1892).
Early setbacks in his compositional career — particularly, the dismal reception of his Symphony No. 1 (1895) – led to an extended period of depression and self-doubt, which he overcame with the aid of hypnosis. With the resounding success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 (1900-1901), however, his lasting fame as a composer was assured. The first decade of the twentieth century proved a productive and happy one for Rachmaninov, who during that time produced such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 2 (1907), the tone poem Isle of the Dead (1907), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909). On May 12, 1902, the composer married his cousin, Natalya Satina.
By the end of the decade, Rachmaninov had embarked on his first American tour, which cemented his fame and popularity in the United States. He continued to make his home in Russia but left permanently following the Revolution in 1917; he thereafter lived in Switzerland and the United States between extensive European and American tours.
While his tours included conducting engagements (he was twice offered, and twice refused, leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), it was his astounding pianistic abilities which won him his greatest glory.
Rachmaninov was possessed of a keyboard technique marked by precision, clarity, and a singular legato sense. Indeed, the pianist’s hands became the stuff of legend. He had an enormous span – he could, with his left hand, play the chord C-E flat-G-C-G — and his playing had a characteristic power, which pianists have described as “cosmic” and “overwhelming.” He is, for example, credited with the uncanny ability to discern, and articulate profound, mysterious movements in a musical composition which usually remain undetected by the superficial perception of rhythmic structures.
Fortunately for posterity, Rachmaninov recorded much of his own music, including the four piano concerti and what is perhaps his most beloved work, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934). He became an American citizen a few weeks before his death in Beverly Hills, CA, on March 28, 1943. Got all that?
“Ohh by the way, if youre all wondering who the hell is that singing in this auto looped music? Its not Rachmaninov…..it’s ME!”
Funny enough, he is also known as the following, take you pick:
So the question here is, does size matter?. Well, when it comes to being able to stretch your fingers well beyond 8 notes (thats 1 full octave) in both hands, not only one, lets say up to 13 notes…its damn scary dont you think?. One thing for sure, is that youre sure capable of playing big chords, with ease. But can you play them fast in succession?. Rachmaninov has a collection of piano pieces, piano concertos that do this very thing…!!
For me, I can stretch at the best of times to 10 in both hands. When I was more fluent at performing and practising a helluva lot, then it was easily 11 notes in my right hand and 10 in my left – dunno why it wasnt a balanced “affair”??. Hahahaha…….
There again I was as I said practising like a maniac everyday for around 5 hours. 2 in the early mornings (no wonder the neighbourhood didnt like us all after a while!), 1 hour during my day in school between that lesson and this lesson, somehow managed it all…sometimes had to break that 1 hour into two sections of half-an-hour there and remaining half-an-hour there, if you get my gist?.
As for now, well, I think I can still maintain a good 10 notes in both hands but when moving fast I would say to be fair, a good 9 notes, full chords and no breaking up of the chords either. When it comes to jazz and ballroom classics, there is no real need to be that “flashy” and sometimes it doesnt cut it…can sound weird, again if you get my gist?. If of course, one wants to get that sound of the attacking brass attacks, sometimes it works. Btw, whats your span?
Concert pianist Lang-Lang has a span of 12 notes?. Serious?
Having talked about the span, whether it be 9, 10 or more, it’s not the only thing that helps, especially when it comes to playing Rachmaninov’s pieces, it still comes down to (in my humble opinion)..and I say this over and over again….how well youre versed with the composer’s “thoughts” and “intentions” in composing such a piece. Your imagination and “visual” perception of what youre playing is very important – “can you see in your mind the picture he is painting?”.
Imagination as Albert Einstein said “is always more important than knowledge”…well sometimes as far as I am concerned. But if you dont have imagination and see things in your mind through the music, clear and in colour, then Rachmaninov for one will be a real challenge.
You not even “get it” who much you try.In other words, youve got to be mad..haha…..not really.
So enough about the size of his enormous hands, lets move on to other things you probably didnt know about him. Rachmaninov had a long an illustrious career and below gives you a clearer picture about his life as possibly the greatest pianist and composer of his day. Yeah, I did mention 15 facts about him so, lets cut it down to 14 now since Ive already talked about the size of his hands.
A young, musical genius
Sergei Rachmaninov was born on 1 April 1873 in Semyonovo, north-west Russia. As a young man he consistently amazed his teachers with his jaw-dropping ability as a pianist and composer. He created a storm with his First Piano Concerto when he was just 18.
A drunken première?
The première of Rachmaninov’s first symphony in March 1897 was a total disaster. It took place under the baton of Glazunov, pictured, who was at best incompetent and, according to some, drunk. The critics tore the work apart and it was never again performed during Rachmaninov’s life. He fell into a depression and needed hypnosis to conquer the problem.
The nation’s favourite classical work
Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 of 1901 is often described as the greatest ever written. Its subsequent use in the film “Brief Encounter” has made it a constant favourite. When a certain survey was carried out, combined together the chart positions of the first 15 years the Hall of Fame chart, the work came out on top overall as the nation’s favourite classical work. It does no doubt remain as one of the most performed piano concertos in the classical repetoire.
Rachmaninov and daughter
It was after completing his first major choral work, Vesna (Spring) in 1902, that Rachmaninov made the surprise announcement that he was marrying his cousin, Natalya. This caused something of a stir as, in Russia, first cousins weren’t permitted to marry. But marry they did and in May 1903 their daughter Irina – pictured – was born.
Rachmaninov was not just a composer, but in his day he was a fine conductor and magnificent pianist. He was appointed Principal Conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre in 1904 and was offered several major posts in the U.S. – most notably with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
A resounding success
Rachmaninov composed his Symphony No.2 in Dresden, where he and his family lived for the best part of four years from 1906. Writing the symphony was a daunting affair for the composer. However it was a resounding success and has remained one of the most popular of all of his works.
A shining hit
Rachmaninov’s very large hands came in useful when performing his third piano concerto. It’s grander, fuller and more expansive in tone and style than the second – with the soloist stretched to the very limits of his ability. The work is used powerfully on the soundtrack of the film Shine and the success of the film ensured a new audience for this muscular, Romantic work.
A man of faith
Rachmaninov had a very deep and personal religious faith which he expressed beautifully in 1915 through his unaccompanied set of choral vespers. They are separated into two parts – the evening Vespers and the morning Matins, both full of exquisitely rich harmonies.
Driven out by the Russian Revolution
The 1917 Russian Revolution meant the end of Russia as the composer had known it. In December 1917, he left Petrograd for Helsinki on an open sled with his wife and daughters. Now in his 40s, Rachmaninov launched a third more lucrative strand of his career – as a concert pianist.
America – the future
Rachmaninov saw America as the future and from his arrival there in 1918 he found himself in great demand, so much so that composing became limited to the summer months. Things reached fever pitch in the 1922-23 concert season when Rachmaninov gave more than 70 performances between November and the end of March. He made enough money to build a house in Los Angeles that was an exact replica of his original Moscow home.
Lost in music
Rachmaninov was once giving a recital in New York with violinist Fritz Kreisler – pictured. Kreisler got into a muddle about where they were in the music. Panic stricken, he whispered to Rachmaninov. ‘Where are we’. The reply came back : ‘Carnegie Hall.’ LOL@!!
The six-foot scowl (Did I mention this last time?)
Despite his success, Rachmaninov seldom smiled in photographs. Tall and severe, he was once dubbed a ‘six-foot scowl’. He did however have a passion for fast cars – and later speedboats. He was the first in his neighbourhood to have an automobile.
By the time of his final tour in 1943 Rachmaninov was already seriously ill with lung cancer brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking. It seems almost prophetic that his final recital on 17 February 1943 included Chopin’s famous funeral march. He died a month later in Beverly Hills, four days before his 70th birthday.
Only a decade after Rachmaninov’s death, the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians predicted that the “enormous popular success of Rachmaninov’s works in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded them with much favour.”. Not a nice thing to say, don’t you think?. They could not have been more wrong.
Before I forget, Rachmaninov amongst other things, was a firm believer and advocate when it came to the famous Hanon finger exercises:
While reading through James Francis Cooke’s “Great Pianists on Piano Playing,” I came across an interview with Rachmaninoff in which he speaks of the usage of Hanon exercises in the “Russian School.”
I thought it would be interesting to post an excerpt of the interview here, being that Hanon seems to be a very controversial topic in the world today.
“It may be interesting to hear something of the general plan followed in the Imperial music schools of Russia. The course is nine years in duration. During the first five years the student gets most of his technical instruction from a book of studies by Hanon, which is used very extensively in the conservatories. In fact, this is practically the only book of strictly technical studies employed. All of the studies are in the key of “C.” They include scales, arpeggios, and other forms of exercises in special technical designs.
At the end of the fifth year an examination takes place. This examination is twofold. The pupil is examined first for proficiency in technic, and later for proficiency in artistic playing- pieces, studies, etc. However, if the pupil fails to pass the technical examination he is not permitted to go ahead. He knows the exercises in the book of studies by Hanon so well that he knows each study by number, and the examiner may ask him, for instance, to play study 17, or 28, or 32, etc. The student at once sits at the keyboard and plays.
Although the original studies are all in the key of “C,” he may be requested to play them in any other key. He has studied them so thoroughly that he should be able to play them in any key desired. A metronomic test is also applied. The student knows that he will be expected to play the studies at certain rates of speed. The examiner states the speed and the metronome is started. The pupil is required, for instance, to play the E flat major scale with the metronome at 120, eight notes to the beat. If he is successful in doing this, he is marked accordingly, and other tests are given.
Personally, I believe this matter of insisting upon a thorough technical knowledge is a very vital one. The mere ability to play a few pieces does not constitute musical proficiency. It is like those music boxes which possess only a few tunes. The student’s technical grasp should be all-embracing.”
At the end of one interview I read featuring Sergei Rachmaninov, Rachmaninov added at the end – from his “Ten Important Attributes Of Beautiful Pianoforte Playing”….
“PLAYING TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC.The virtuoso must have some far greater motive than that of playing for gain. He has a mission, and that mission is to educate the public. It is quite as necessary for the sincere student in the home to carry on this educational work. For this reason it is to his advantage to direct his efforts toward pieces which he feels will be of musical educational advantage to his friends. In this he must use judgment and not overstep their intelligence too far. With the virtuoso it is somewhat different. He expects, and even demands, from his audience a certain grade of musical taste, a certain degree of musical education. Otherwise he would work in vain. If the public would enjoy the greatest in music they must hear good music until these beauties become evident. It would be useless for the virtuoso to attempt a concert tour in the heart of Africa. The virtuoso is expected to give his best, and he should not be criticised by audiences that have not the mental capacity to appreciate his work. The virtuosos look to the students of the world to do their share in the education of the great musical public. Do not waste your time with music that is trite, or ignoble. Life is too short to spend it wandering in the barren Saharas of musical trash”
The “Culminating Point” theory
When it came to interpreting a piece of music, Rachmaninoff theorized that every piece of music had a culminating point and that, regardless of where that particular point is within the piece, the performer had to know how to approach it with precision and calculation—otherwise the construction and execution of the piece would feel disjointed and “fuzzy”.
As for where that point is, the composition itself determines the culmination: it can be at the end or in the middle, and be either loud or soft.
Rachmaninoff himself learned this practice from Feodor Chaliapin, a close friend. “This moment must arrive with the sound and sparkle of a ribbon snapped at the end of a race—it must seem like a liberation from the last material object, the last barrier between truth and its expression,” Rachmaninoff explained. As an example of a “culminating point,” the end of the third piano concerto might be quite fitting.
Rachmaninov certainly knew what it meant to be a great pianist and he was certainly of the greatest and most talented around. And in closing, Id like to say this…
“There is always an air of mystery in Rachmaninoff’s music, especially in his later work. The music is enigmatic and very close to the edge of abstraction, as if the world was being torn apart by an unknown force…One that humanity never knew before….”
And as the great Arthur Rubinstein once wrote…
“He had the secret of the golden, living tone which comes from the heart … I was always under the spell of his glorious and inimitable tone which could make me forget my uneasiness about his too rapidly fleeting fingers and his exaggerated rubatos. There was always the irresistible sensuous charm, not unlike Kreisler’s”