Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov was born on April 1, 1873, at Oneg near Novgorod, Russia, to a former Army Officer Vasily Rachmaninov and his wife Lyubov. The family was rich and aristocratic, and owned several estates. The six children―Sergei was the fourth―were brought up amidst tutors and governesses, and it was one of these that first recognized young Sergei's latent musical talent. That seemed a bit strange, considering that his parents were themselves pretty proficient pianists, and shouldn't really have needed someone else to point it out for them. Anyway, once it had been brought to their attention, they were quick to encourage him by hiring a professional musician to train him―Anna Ornatzkaya, from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. They weren't able to afford her for very long though―for while his son was practicing his scales, Vasily Rachmaninov, a notorious womanizer, was making music of another kind and squandering away his entire fortune. By the time Sergei was nine, all five of the family estates had been sold off to repay his father's debts, and the family had to move to St. Petersburg to live in noticeably constrained circumstances. As if this wasn't bad enough, there happened to be a diphtheria epidemic raging through St. Petersburg right then, and not very surprisingly, three of the children contracted it―Sergei, his brother Vladimir, and his sister Sophia―the boys pulled through, the girl didn't. This was the last straw for Lyubov Rachmaninov―she had endured enough, beyond this it wasn't possible any longer―she asked her husband to leave. From then on, until his death twenty years later, neither Sergei nor his siblings had much contact with their father.
These family happenings, of course, took their toll on the young sensitive boy. He could not concentrate on the work at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he had been studying at this time on a scholarship, and consequently failed his exams. He might have been expelled, except for the intervention of his cousin Alexandre Siloti who was a teacher there. Siloti, a former pupil himself of the great Franz Lizst, had Sergei move out of the family flat, and instead lodge for the next six years with piano teacher Nikolai Zverev, for some really intensive training. There were two other gifted boys besides Sergei staying at Zverev's, and along with the day pupils, they followed a strict schedule of practice and more practice, with many visits to concerts and operas to learn how things were done professionally. They also came into regular contact with Zverev's influential friends―Anton Rubinstein, Anton Arensky, Sergei Taneyev, and the veritable genius Piotr Tchaikovsky. In addition to all this, Sergei also soon returned to taking lessons again at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Now, aside from developing his skills as a pianist, he also became interested in composing. This, given his quiet, introspective personality, required some peace and solitude, which was not possible with so many pupils swarming around daily. The rather autocratic Zverev, with whom he had a rather tense relationship anyway, reacted violently when asked for a separate room to work in―good grief, this kid was developing some mighty notions, wasn't he?―get out, he said.
Rachmanivov left and went to live with his relatives, the Satins, at Ivanovka, their estate on the outskirts of Moscow. They were kind people who appreciated him, and the peace and beauty of their home was just what he needed. He graduated from the Conservatory a year early, in 1892, writing an opera 'Aleko' (based on Pushkin's 'The Gypsies') for his final assignment, and winning the Great Gold Medal, the title of 'Free artist', and a publishing contract with Gutheil. He also reconciled with Zverev, who, to both, made up for their three-year rift as well to show his appreciation, presented him with a gold watch.
Now began Rachmaninov's professional career as a composer, conductor, and pianist. It was to be a very eventful one, taking him from Russia to Europe, and finally to the USA, and fetching him both international renown and great wealth. But that was still in the future, and at that time, for two years after graduation, he scraped a living first giving piano lessons, and then, in 1894, accepting a teaching position at the Maryinsky Academy for Girls. Alongside, he had kept busy composing, and had produced the 'First Piano Concerto Opus 1 (1891), the 'Prelude in C sharp minor' (1892), 'The Chorus of Spirits' (1892) , the 'Concert for Choir' (1893), 'The Rock Opus 7' (1893), and the 'Trio Elegiaque Opus 9' (1893). To follow were the 'Twelve Songs Opus 14' (1896), the 'Six Moments Musicaux Opus 16' (1896), and 'Six Choruses Opus 15' (1895.)
The 'First Symphony Opus 13', completed between 1895 and 1896, was the first of his major works, but his great expectations of it were dashed after a disastrous first presentation in 1897 by the conductor Alexandre Glazunov, who just happened to be more than slightly drunk at the time. The critics overlooked that little detail, and thrashed poor Sergei so effectively that he went into a deep depression, and needed the help of a hypnotist in 1900 to recover his composing powers. In the meantime, he turned to conducting, taking a seasonal post as Assistant Conductor at the Private Opera of rich businessman called Mamontov, and then, in 1899, went to England for a brief period to conduct there. On his return he underwent a successful three-month long therapy with the hypnotist, Dr. Nikolai Dahl. The result was the stupendously beautiful 'Second Piano Concerto Opus 18' (1900-01).
The dawning of the twentieth century also saw Sergei marrying his cousin Natalia Satina and visiting Europe for the first time―the Twelve Songs Opus 21 (1902) was composed during his honeymoon trip. On returning to Ivanovka, other works followed in quick succession―the 'Variations on a Theme of Chopin Opus 22' (1902-03), the 'Ten Preludes Opus 23' (1903), 'The Miserly Knight Opus 24' (1903-04), and 'Francesca da Rimini Opus 25' (1904-05). These works were produced at the Bolshoi Theater, where he had started working as a Conductor in 1904. It was a successful tenure, but ended after Rachmaninov decided that the worsening political climate of the country was getting in the way of single-minded composing. He moved to Dresden to work in peace, returning to Ivanovka for holidays. He was now a family man, with two daughters Irina (1903) and Tatiana (1907). The stay in Dresden produced the following works―the 'Second Symphony Opus 27' (1906-08), the 'First Piano Sonata Opus 28 (1907-08), the unfinished 'Monna Vanna' (1907), and 'The Isle of the Dead opus 29' (1909).
In 1909, Rachmaninov debuted in the USA, performing his brand-new composition the 'Third Piano Concerto Opus 30', and other works in Massachusetts and New York, in the company of luminaries like Walter Damroch and Gustav Mahler. On returning to Russia, he took up the reins at Ivanovka, and in between managing the Estate composed the ' Liturgy of St John Chrysostom Opus 31' , the ' Thirteen Preludes Opus 32', the 'Etudes-Tableaux Opus 33', the 'Fourteen Songs Opus 34', 'The Bells Opus 35', the 'Second Piano Sonata Opus 36', and the 'All-Night Vigil Opus 37'.
On the personal front, he developed close relationships with two young women, the poet Marietta Shaginyan and the singer Nina Koshetz. The former served as his muse and provided some excellent librettos for his music, and the latter, for whom he composed the 'Six Songs Opus 38' and the 'Etudes-Tableaux Opus 39', nearly wrecked his marriage.
In 1917, with the Bolsheviks coming into power, Rachmaninov left Russia with his family, never again to return. Their estate was wrecked in their wake, and it was to be a very long time before they had any contact again with family and friends―Sergei was to hear about his mother's death second-hand. The family lived briefly in Sweden and Norway, and then moved to the USA, which was to be their main base henceforth. Almost immediately after arrival, Rachmaninov embarked on the first of the series of the concerts that were to bring him worldwide acclaim. He toured America, Europe, Canada, and Cuba, and made records with both Edison and the Victor Company. The touring and the record contracts made him a rich man once more―he bought a house in New York, started the Tair Publishing House in Paris for his daughters, began spending summers in France, and bought a house in Switzerland―but all this left him little time for composing. For over ten years he performed brilliantly and produced next to nothing. Then, in 1926, while taking a holiday in Dresden, he wrote the 'Fourth Piano Concerto Opus 40' and the 'Three Russian Songs Opus 41'―the latter was favorably received, the former, to his immense consternation, was found too grim. The 1930s saw the production of the more successful 'Variations on a Theme of Corelli Opus 42', the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Opus 43 ', and the 'Third Symphony Opus 44'. This was also the period when the Bolsheviks, angered by his criticism of their regime, imposed a three-year ban on his music being performed in Russia, and he also lost most of his fortune in the Wall Street Crash. To top it all, the Second World War broke out in 1939. Rachmaninov canceled his European concerts and returned to the USA.
His grueling work schedule had taken its toll on his health, and just a couple of years after returning to the USA, he was diagnosed with cancer. Despite his poor health, he continued conducting and composing―his last great composition was the 'Symphonic Dances Opus 45'―until the end. He breathed his last on March 28, 1943.