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Rachmaninoff had a precarious and emotionally fraught childhood. His father dissipated the family fortune and they had to move several times, his sister died in a diphtheria epidemic, and his parents separated. Yet he remained enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1885, when he failed all of his academic subjects (in part, at least, because his now single mother was no longer supervising his homework). That led to him being transferred to the Moscow Conservatory, where he was boarded with a notoriously strict piano teacher, Nikolai Zverev.

That proved to be a blessing for his career, as Rachmaninoff became one of the most prodigiously skilled virtuosos on the keyboard. And at Zverev’s apartment, the young musician met many of the leading Russian musicians of the day, including Tchaikovsky and Arensky. Rachmaninoff studied harmony with Arensky at the Conservatory, but it was Tchaikovsky who proved the most influential, as an idolized mentor.

In January 1892, Rachmaninoff made his official debut in Moscow, playing solo pieces by Chopin, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, plus some of his own chamber works: two pieces for cello and piano, and his Trio élégiaque in G minor, which he had written less than two weeks before the concert in just four days.

Like most of his music of this time, this trio was highly influenced by Tchaikovsky, though the voice is already clearly Rachmaninoff’s own. It is cast in a single long movement, with pronounced similarities to the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, composed in 1882 after the death of Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s friend, teacher, and the director of the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky’s long first movement was called “Pezzo elegiaco” (Elegiac Piece), and like it, Rachmaninoff’s “Elegiac Trio” ends with a funeral march. There are other points of reference to Tchaikovsky, but the Trio’s powerful sweep, along an arc of growing animation before the somber close, is pure Rachmaninoff.

Almost two years later, Tchaikovsky died after a sudden illness (and before conducting the premiere of Rachmaninoff’s orchestral fantasy The Rock, as he had wished). Rachmaninoff turned again to this format, composing a second Trio élégiaque in memory of his mentor.

-John Henken