Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was one of the finest pianists of his generation and the last great Romantic Russian composer. The lyricism of his works have made him popular with choreographers; ballets created for The Royal Ballet using Rachmaninoff's music include Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody (1980) and Liam Scarlett's Sweet Violets (2012).
Rachmaninoff first learnt piano with his mother and studied at the St Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, graduating in 1892. He quickly won popularity as a composer. The failure of his First Symphony in 1895 led to a fallow period, which ended with the huge success of his Second Piano Concerto in 1901, still one of his most popular works. He emigrated with his family to the USA in 1918 and until 1925 sidelined composition to pursue an extensive performing schedule. He founded a publishers, TAIR, in Paris, devoted to Russian music, and was an early proponent of recorded music. His criticism of the Soviet Union in 1931 led to a ban on the performance of his works in the USSR. He returned to live in Europe in the early 1930s, but with the threat of war he and his family returned to the USA in summer 1939. Midway through his 1942–3 tour he became ill and died of cancer in March 1943.
Rachmaninoff's music, innately Russian in feel, possesses a profound expressive beauty. His often virtuoso writing for the piano is evidence of his extraordinary facility as a performer, but melody and atmosphere are always placed foremost.
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A quick guide to The Royal Ballet's triple programme of one-act ballets by Balanchine, Scarlett and Wheeldon.