Born: October 19, 1916 – Odessa, Russia
Died: October 14, 1985 – Moscow, Russia
Emil Grigoryevich Gilels was a Soviet pianist. He was born Samuil Hilels in Odessa to a musical Jewish family; both his parents were musicians. He began studying the piano at 6 under Yakov Tkach, a stern disciplinarian who emphasized scales and studies. Gilels later credited this strict training as establishing the foundation for his technique. Gilels made his public debut at the age of 12 in June 1929 with a well-received program of Beethoven, Scarlatti, Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann. In 1930, he entered the Odessa Conservatory where he was coached by Berta Reingbald, whom Gilels credited as a formative influence.
In 1933, Gilels won the newly-founded All Soviet Union Piano Competition at age 16. After graduating from the Odessa Conservatory (Ukraine) in 1935, he moved to Moscow, where he studied under the famous piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus until 1937. A year later, at age 21, he won the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels, beating such competitors as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Moura Lympany.
Gilels was the first Soviet artist to be allowed to travel extensively in the West. After the war, he toured Europe starting from 1947 as a concert pianist, and made his American debut in 1955 playing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in Philadelphia. He taught as a professor for the Moscow Conservatory after 1952. In his later years he remained in his native Russia and rarely ventured abroad. He was the winner of the prestigious Stalin Prize in 1946, the Order of Lenin in 1961 and 1966 and the Lenin Prize in 1962. Emil Gilels premiered Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8, dedicated to Mira Mendelssohn, on December 30, 1944, at the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.
Gilels is regarded by many as one of the most significant pianists of the 20th century and he is universally admired for his superb technical control and burnished tone. His interpretations of the central German-Austrian classics formed the core of his repertoire, in particular Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, but he was equally illuminative in Scarlatti, J.S. Bach as well as 20th-century music like Debussy, Béla Bartók and Prokofiev.
Sergey Vasilyevich Rachmaninov, Rachmaninoff also spelled Rakhmaninov, or Rachmaninov, (born March 20 [April 1, New Style], 1873, Oneg, near Semyonovo, Russia—died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California, U.S.), a composer who was the last great figure of the tradition of Russian Romanticism and a leading piano virtuoso of his time. He is especially known for his piano concerti and the piece for piano and orchestra titled Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934).
Rachmaninoff was born on an estate belonging to his grandparents, situated near Lake Ilmen in the Novgorod district. His father was a retired army officer and his mother the daughter of a general. The boy was destined to become an army officer until his father lost the entire family fortune through risky financial ventures and then deserted the family. Young Sergey’s cousin Aleksandr Siloti, a well-known concert pianist and conductor, sensed the boy’s abilities and suggested sending him to the noted teacher and pianist Nikolay Zverev in Moscow for his piano studies. It is to Zverev’s strict disciplinarian treatment of the boy that musical history owes one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century. For his general education and theoretical subjects in music, Sergey became a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory.
At age 19 he graduated from the conservatory, winning a gold medal for his one-act opera Aleko (after Aleksandr Pushkin’s poem Tsygany [“The Gypsies”]). His fame and popularity, both as composer and concert pianist, were launched by two compositions: the Prelude in C-sharp Minor, played for the first time in public on September 26, 1892, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, which had its first performance in Moscow on October 27, 1901. The former piece, although it first brought Rachmaninoff to public attention, was to haunt him throughout his life—the prelude was constantly requested by his concert audiences. The concerto, his first major success, revived his hopes after a trying period of inactivity.
In his youth, Rachmaninoff was subject to emotional crises over the success or failure of his works as well as his personal relationships. Self-doubt and uncertainty carried him into deep depressions, one of the most severe of which followed the failure, on its first performance in March 1897, of his Symphony No. 1 in D Minor. The symphony was poorly performed, and the critics condemned it. During this period, while brooding over an unhappy love affair, he was taken to a psychiatrist, Nikolay Dahl, who is often credited with having restored the young composer’s self-confidence, thus enabling him to write the Piano Concerto No. 2 (which is dedicated to Dahl).
At the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Rachmaninoff was a conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre. Although more of an observer than a person politically involved in the revolution, he went with his family, in November 1906, to live in Dresden. There he wrote three of his major scores: the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor (1907), the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (1909), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (1909). The last was composed especially for his first concert tour of the United States, highlighting his much-acclaimed pianistic debut on November 28, 1909, with the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch. Piano Concerto No. 3 requires great virtuosity from the pianist; its last movement is a bravura section as dazzling as any ever composed. In Philadelphia and Chicago he appeared with equal success in the role of conductor, interpreting his own symphonic compositions. Of these, the Symphony No. 2 is the most significant: it is a work of deep emotion and haunting thematic material. While touring, he was invited to become permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony, but he declined the offer and returned to Russia in February 1910.
The one notable composition of Rachmaninoff’s second period of residence in Moscow was his choral symphony The Bells (1913), based on Konstantin Balmont’s Russian translation of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. This work displays considerable ingenuity in the coupling of choral and orchestral resources to produce striking imitative and textural effects.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Rachmaninoff went into his second self-imposed exile, dividing his time between residences in Switzerland and the United States. Although for the next 25 years he spent most of his time in an English-speaking country, he never mastered its language or thoroughly acclimatized himself. With his family and a small circle of friends, he lived a rather isolated life. He missed Russia and the Russian people—the sounding board for his music, as he said. And this alienation had a devastating effect on his formerly prolific creative ability. He produced little of real originality but rewrote some of his earlier work. Indeed, he devoted himself almost entirely to concertizing in the United States and Europe, a field in which he had few peers. His only substantial works from this period are the Symphony No. 3 in A Minor (1936), another expression of sombre, Slavic melancholy, and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra, a set of variations on a violin caprice by Niccolò Paganini. Rachmaninoff’s last major work, the Symphonic Dances for orchestra, was composed in 1940, about two years before his death.
Rachmaninoff’s music, although written mostly in the 20th century, remains firmly entrenched in the 19th-century musical idiom. He was, in effect, the final expression of the tradition embodied by Tchaikovsky—a melodist of Romantic dimensions still writing in an era of explosive change and experimentation.