SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943) inscribed at
the top of his D-minor piano Trio Élégaique,
"a la memoire d'un grand artiste," and
the great artist he was referring to was Tchaikovsky.
Rachmaninoff was 20 years old when Tchaikovsky
died of cholera, on November 6, 1893 (October
25, according to the Julian calendar used in Russia),
and the news plunged him into a devastation and
anguish that he could only express in a way he
knew how - by writing music. The D-minor Trio
Élégaique, an elegy to Tchaikovsky,
is an expression of that grief.
Tchaikovsky had done the same thing by writing
his A minor Trio upon the death of his friend,
Nicholas Rubinstein. This trio had provided Rachmaninoff
with a model for his first Trio Élégaique
in G minor, written as a conservatory exercise
during the previous year, from January 18-21,
The D-minor Trio Élégaique took
Rachmaninoff six weeks to write. Later, in a letter
to Natalya Skalon, he wrote that he had "trembled
for every phrase, sometimes crossed out absolutely
everything and began to think and think about
it all over again."
Tchaikovsky had been Rachmaninoff's champion
at the Moscow Conservatory, where the younger
composer had had been admitted at the age of 12.
His courses were piano studies with Zveriev (later
Siloti), and harmony and composition with Anton
Arensky and Alexander Taneiev. However, Rachmaninoff
skipped classes, hated practicing and studying,
and it was only because performance and composition
were effortless for him that he kept pace with
the other students.
One of Rachmaninoff's first original compositions,
written as an exercise, was a piano duet transcription
of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. Zveriev was
so impressed with this work that he took Rachmaninoff
and another student to Tchaikovsky to perform
the piece. Tchaikovsky responded by giving Rachmaninoff
his first commission - a piano-duet transcription
of The Sleeping Beauty. Rachmaninoff was then
17 years old.
At the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff played
his own Song Without Words for a jury that included
Tchaikovsky, who gave him the highest possible
rating. In 1892, he won the Gold Medal for composition,
and was placed on the honor roll. For his graduation
exercise, he completed a one-act opera, Aleko,
which was performed at the Conservatory to such
high praise that it found a publisher. Tchaikovsky
then arranged for the opera to be performed at
the Bolshoi Theater on May 9, 1893.
Six months later, Tchaikovsky was dead.
Later, Rachmaninoff wrote:
To him I owe the first and deciding success in
my life. It was my teacher Zvierew who took me
to him. Tschiakowsky at the time was already world
famous and honored by everybody, but he remained
unspoiled. He was the most charming artist and
man I ever met. He had an unequaled delicacy of
mind. He was modest, as all truly great people
are, and simple, as very few are.
Tschaikowsky was about fifty-five at the time,
that is to say, more than twice my age, but he
talked to me, a young beginner, as if I were his
equal. He listened to my first opera, Aleko, and
arranged for it to be performed at the Imperial
Tschaikowsky did even more. Timidly
and modestly, as if he were afraid I might refuse,
he asked if I would consent to have my work produced
with one of his operas. To be on a poster with
Tschaikowsky was about the greatest honor that
could be paid to a composer, and I would not have
dared to suggest such a thing. Tschaikowsky knew
this. He wanted to help me, but was anxious also
not to offend or humiliate me.
I soon felt the result of Tschaikowsky's kindness.
I began to be known, and some years later I became
leader of the Imperial Opera orchestra. Having
once reached this important position, the rest
The first performance of the D-minor Trio Élégaique
was given by Rachmaninoff with the violinist Yuly
Konyus and cellist Anatole Brandukov on January