The women in Sergei Rachmaninov’s family were a great influence in the early part of his life and career. As mentioned in last week’s post, his mother, Lyubov Petrovna Butakova, gave him is first piano lessons. She also became the main family care giver shortly after the family moved to St. Petersburg. Her mother was also an important part of young Sergei’s life. He was the doted upon favourite of his grandmother Butakova. She took him to Russian Orthodox church services on a regular basis, exposing him to chants and church bells – the impact of which can be heard in several of his pieces. Sergei was able to play anything that he heard and he often played for his grandmother after their trips to church – earning a coin in return.
Grandmother Butakova is the one who defended Sergei when he got into trouble. She took him away on restorative vacations to the countryside. When he failed his academic exams and was in danger of losing his scholarship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, she convinced her daughter to find another way. His mother consulted with her nephew, Alexander Siloti, who suggested Sergei study at the Moscow Conservatory under Nikolai Zverev, a strict disciplinarian.
His sister Yelena also had a small influence in his music career. Another artistic person in the family, she was involved with the Bolshoi Theater. She was about to join the company when she fell ill and passed away at the young age of 18. The Bolshoi Theater would perform some of his pieces over the years. And from 1904 to early 1906, he was their conductor. Sergei left for political reasons and we’ll examine some of the political and broader societal influences in his life next time!