It’s hard to believe, but Sergei Rachmaninoff, the man who would become one of the 20th century’s towering pianists and composers, flunked all of his exams as a twelve-year-old at St. Petersburg Conservatory. Acquaintances described him as an “aimless goof off” who specialized in altering his report card to make Fs look like Bs. Fearful for his future, his mother and his cousin, Alexander Siloti, jerked young Sergei out of the lenient St. Petersburg Conservatory and planted him in the notoriously rigorous rival Conservatory in Moscow. Nikolai Zverev, who had a frightful reputation for strictness, accepted him as a pupil. The family’s strategy worked. Rachmaninoff buckled down and graduated in three years as the Conservatory’s star, winning its Great Gold Medal, only the third such award ever granted. Years later, he reminisced about his experience, “Discipline entered my life. God forbid that I leave the piano five minutes before my time of three hours was up! Or one uncompleted note – such cases were capable of stirring him up into a fearsome temper.However, all our achievements and diligence paid off: he drove us, his pupils, to various houses with concerts. When I finished playing, Zverev said: ‘Now that is how one should play the piano!’”
Discipline was not the only gift he received at the Moscow Conservatory. Its most famous professor, Pytor Tchaikovsky, became his teacher, his cheerleader, his mentor, and his father figure. So, it is no surprise that when Sergei composed his Trio élégiaque No. 1 in his final year as a student, he would base its main theme on a memorable motif from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The DNA of this Trio comes from the opening four notes horn motif of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. Rachmaninoff turns Tchaikovsky’s descending four notes into a four-note rising motif – in a minor mode – introduced by the piano. Everyone in the audience at the Conservatory would have been well aware of Rachmaninoff’s unmistakable musical reference. At the time, borrowing an idea from another composer was not plagiarism, it was a show of respect. The issue wasn’t where the idea came from, but what you could do with it, and Sergei did plenty.
This Trio, which he wrote as a nineteen-year-old, already sounds like the Rachmaninoff who years later wrote his powerful piano concertos and his monumental Second Symphony. His characteristic massive chords, captivating sequences, and Romantic washes of color are much in evidence.
The Trio ends with a funeral march. Even at that young age, Rachmaninoff was obsessed with death. Many of his mature works quote the Dies Irae from the Catholic mass for the dead.
Rachmaninoff returned to this format a year later, after Tchaikovsky’s premature death. Trio élégiaque No. 2 is a tribute to his mentor. It, too, ends with a poignant funeral march.