The Russian compositional style of Sergei Rachmaninov was strongly rooted during his education under the renowned but strict piano teacher Nikolai Zverev (1833-1893). In the year 1885, Rachmaninov was one of three pupils whom Zverev brought into his home, on the condition that he could supervise their lives and interests while they continued piano lessons with him at the Conservatory. Zverev's students had to practice three hours daily:
“This practice had to begin at 6 A.M., and we took turns in being the one to get up at that hour. No excuse was ever allowed-if a pupil had been at a play or concert the night before, or had not gotten to bed until 2 A.M.-nothing could change this schedule: he whose turn it was to begin at 6 would get up and crawl to that piano, no matter what. And woe to him if any sleepiness was betrayed in his playing-Zverev would storm in, a frightening figure in underwear, with a horrible shout and sometimes a hard smack. The sleepy pupil would instantly wake up, and play with new attention,” says Motya Pressman, one of Zverev’s students.
Zverev not only taught his students at the piano but also prepared them for the professional music life in Moscow of that time.
“Zverev turned his home from what might have been a musical prison into a musical paradise. From a very strict teacher, he completely changed on Sundays. The afternoon and evening he always kept open house for the greatest figures in the Moscow world of music. Tchaikovsky, Taneyev, Arensky, Safonov, Siloti, as well as university professors, lawyers, actors, would drop in, and the hours passed in talk and music. For us boys the delightful feature of these Sundays was that Zverev would not permit any of the great musicians present to touch the piano, unless by way of some explanation or criticism. For we, not they, were the solo artists on these occasions. Our impromptu performances were Zverev’s greatest joy. No matter what we played, his verdict was always “Fine! Well done! Excellent!” He let us play anything we felt like playing, and would call on his guests to bear him out in his opinion of us.”
Rachmaninov was already deeply involved in the Russian music scene at an early age. In this sense, the legacy of compatriot Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) should certainly be mentioned. Rimsky-Korsakov belonged to The Mighty Handful, a group of five composers who strove to develop their own national musical language, with Russian folk music as the main source of inspiration. Sergei Rachmaninov, however, didn't always agree with his strict Russian style. Although Scheherazade is imbued with Russian orientalism, Rachmaninov chose the work for one of his piano roll recordings for the American Piano Company, still available online. “When I had to leave my home and my beloved Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, my family and I were allowed to take only 500 roubles per person, and of all the music I owned, I opted to take only Rimsky’s Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel).”
Soon after his studies with Zverev, he was accepted into Anton Arensky’s harmony class. It soon became obvious that he was extraordinarily talented: in 1888, he graduated with the highest distinction in music theory, and in 1892 he passed his examination in piano and composition a year earlier than expected – a performance that earned him a gold medal. During the summer of 1890, Rachmaninov began sketching his First Piano Concerto. Rachmaninov gave this piano concerto the official title 'Opus 1'.
He dedicated the work to his cousin and piano teacher Alexander Siloti (1863-1945) and also created a version of it for two pianos. The first movement premiered on March 17, 1892, at the Moscow Conservatory with Rachmaninov at the piano. He himself was not entirely satisfied with his composition. He made several attempts to revise it, but the success of his second and third piano concertos caused delays. It wasn't until 1917 that Rachmaninov deemed the time right for a thorough revision, refining the orchestration, composing a new cadenza for the opening movement, and making some structural adjustments to the finale, among other changes.