Byline: Bill Gowen
Just who was Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose music will be featured during this summer's Ravinia Festival?
Rachmaninoff, born in 1873 in Russia, matured into a huge man (by contemporary standards), standing 6-feet-2 and with unusually large hands that could stretch well over a full octave at the keyboard. He wrote most of his piano pieces with himself in mind, and that's why pianists with relatively small hands often have difficulty with several of them, notably the final movement of the Third Concerto.
Nearly all Rachmaninoff's major compositions (including the three symphonies and four piano concertos), will be presented over the next two months at Ravinia, beginning tonight with the symphonic poem "Isle of the Dead."
But despite a handful of very memorable pieces, Rachmaninoiff was not an overly prolific composer, and for a very simple reason: following a flurry of writing activity early in his career, he simply couldn't find the time.
Also, it was a case of simple economics. Composing music simply didn't pay the bills, and following his 1918 emigration to the United States, Rachmaninoff took to the concert stage out of necessity. Ironically, twice he was offered (and refused) the music directorship of the Boston Symphony. He preferred to concertize around the world, with an emphasis on conducting and playing his own compositions.
But it went beyond that. Rachmaninoff was arguably the greatest pianist of his time, and he was in constant demand. And, he loved playing the piano.
History has a way of repeating itself in the classical music world. Just compare Rachmaninoff with Gustav Mahler, the Austrian- born composer and conductor (1860-1911), and the American wunderkind, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). Like Mahler and Bernstein, Rachmaninoff found his waking hours split between composing and performing. In the case of Mahler and Bernstein, their other musical interest was conducting. Each was considered among the leading maestros of his generation, and each wound up composing far fewer pieces than he hoped he would.
For Rachmaninoff, it was the lure of the piano. He was not only a supreme master of that instrument, but he kept at it until just two weeks before his death. One of his last public performances took place at Orchestra Hall on Feb. 11-12, 1943. Battling terminal cancer, he played two of his own works: the First Piano Concerto and "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini." He died six weeks later.
As early as 1885 at the Moscow Conservatory of Music (where he was a piano student), Rachmaninoff began to develop an insatiable urge to write music. In 1892, he composed a seemingly innocuous collection of five pieces for piano carrying the title "Morceaux de Fantasie." The second of those pieces, the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, put him on the map as a composer.
Rachmaninoff later said about this important three-minute work: "I composed several serious things after this, but strange to say, a small piano piece, the C-sharp Minor Prelude, made me known in many lands. ...It came with such force that I could not shake it off even though I tried hard to do so. And I also remember that I received only $20 for it. The piece was printed and sold in large quantities throughout the …