One of the finest melodists of the neo-Romantics, this composer came from a musical family where his grandfather had been a pupil of composer-pianist John Field (inventor of the nocturne) and his father also played piano. Rachmaninov went on to study at the Conservatoire in St. Petersburg. Several of his earliest compositions were to become his most popular: the Prelude in C Sharp Minor, his opera Aleko (1893), and the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1901). He was already famous at 26 when he conducted a concert of his music in London. He became a conductor at the Bolshoi Opera in 1904. On a family estate at Ivanovka, he composed the Piano Concerto No. 3 (1909), the gripping symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead, his choral symphony The Bells, and several other works. Leaving Russia after the October Revolution, he never returned, but sailed for America in late 1918. As a concert pianist, he was much in demand, and recorded many of his own and other composers' works. At Lake Lucerne, he wrote the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), Symphony No. 3 (1939), and Symphonic Dances (1940).
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Rachmaninov's music has been quoted in approximately 30 films from Russia, Australia, Europe, and the U.S.A. Portions of the Piano Concerto No. 2 figure prominently in Brief Encounter (1946), The Seven Year Itch (1955) as a wry comic aside, and in Barbra Streisand's comedy-romance-drama The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996).
The Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, primarily the sumptuous 18th Variation, appeared as a serious romantic motif throughout the strange, almost Harlequin romance-fantasy Somewhere in Time (1980) as Christopher Reeve's character obsessively pursues his beloved (Jane Seymour) through time to an idyllic late 19th century vacation hotel. The same music is used as droll underscoring for Groundhog Day (1993) in which the main character is also trapped in time, condemned to repeat a sequence of mostly hilarious events until he "gets it right." Vidor's Rhapsody (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor employs the theme romantically.
In Shine (1996), the real-life story of Australian pianist David Helfgott, his struggles with his father, and his obsessive rehearsals of the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor precipitates his nervous breakdown. The Concerto No. 3 is in fact quite different from the tuneful first two; it does not have stopping or resting points, but is a continuously evolving structure that requires a great deal of stamina and a prodigious technique. The pianist has a somewhat less severe trial in the television piece Bolet Meets Rachmaninoff (1983).
Rachmaninov's Vocalise is beautifully played in Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1993). His Pushkin opera Aleko, extolling the inherent mercy and high moral standards of Gypsy culture, was the subject of a 1953 Russian film. Other peculiar uses of Rachmaninov quotes occur in Kevin Billington's fine drama Interlude (1968), the fine Russian drama Neokonchennaya pyesa dlya mekhanicheskogo pianino (Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano, 1977), the pop arrangement Prelude in Isham Jones & His Orchestra (1933), The Congress of Penguins (1993), and Main Station Maestoso (1994). ~ "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Rovi