Born in Semyonovo, near Novgorod into a wealthy family with a strong military background, Rachmaninov had his first piano lessons with his mother at the family estate at Oneg. After a decline in their fortunes, the family moved to Saint Petersburg where Rachmaninov studied at the conservatory, before going on to Moscow, where he studied piano with Nikolay Zverev and Alexander Siloti. He also studied harmony with Anton Arensky and counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev. While still a student he wrote this one act opera Aleko, and the set of piano pieces, Op. 3, which contains the Prelude in C sharp minor, probably Rachmaninov's most popular piece for solo piano.
Rachmaninov's first symphony was premiered in 1897, but was a complete flop with the critics. Some have suggested that this was as much due to the conducting of Alexander Glazunov, who may have been drunk, as it was to Rachmaninov. The bad reception led to a nervous breakdown and complete loss of self-confidence for Rachmaninov. He wrote very little music until he began a course of therapy with Nikolai Dahl. The result of these sessions was the Piano Concerto No. 2, which Rachmaninov dedicated to Dahl. The piece was very well received at its premiere, for which Rachmaninov played the solo part himself, and remains one of his most popular compositions, gaining some fame from its use in the film Brief Encounter.
The second piano concerto secured Rachmaninov's reputation as a composer, but he was also a very well known and respected pianist. He is said to have had one of the widest hand spans of any pianist, able to cover a twelfth with his left hand. In other words, he could play a C with his left little finger, and play the G an octave and a half above it with his thumb. He made a number of recordings of his own music.
Rachmaninov made his first recordings for Edison Records on their "Diamond Disc" records, as at the time the Edison company had the best audio fidelity in recording the piano. Rachmaninov did not consider himself a great pianist, and thought his own performances variable in quality. He therefore asked that only his recorded performances that he personally approved be commercially issued. The Edison Company, possibly through simple carelessness, issued multiple alternative takes of Rachmaninov's recordings (as was common in the disc record industry at the time for reasons of ease of mass production of records from multiple masters). Rachmaninov was angered, left Edison, and thereafter recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company (and later its successor, RCA Victor), which was pleased to abide by Rachmaninoff's restrictions and proudly advertised him as one of the great artists who recorded for the Victor Company. Rachmaninov also made numerous recordings on piano rolls, and was reported to have regarded these as the most accurate reflection of his playing. Initially disbelieving that a roll of punched paper could provide an accurate record, he was invited to listen to a master roll of his first recording in 1919 for the Ampico company. He is then quoted as saying "Gentleman - I, Sergi Rachmaninov, have just heard myself play!". He continued to record for Ampico until around 1929.
It was as a pianist that Rachmaninov made a tour of the United States in 1909, an event for which he wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3. This tour made him very popular in America, and he emigrated there following the Russian Revolution of 1917. His output then started to slow down to some degree, because he was required to spend much of his time performing in order to support himself. Nevertheless, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of the best known of all Rachmaninov's works, was written in the United States in 1934.
Rachmaninov went on to write his Symphony No. 3 (1935-36) and the Symphonic Dances (1940), his last completed work. He died in 1943 in Beverly Hills, California, having completed four piano concertos, three symphonies, two piano sonatas, the choral symphony The Bells (based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe), a setting of the vespers and many songs, amongst other works. Most of his pieces are in a quite traditional romantic style, rather akin to Tchaikovsky, although a few of his later works, such as the fourth piano concerto and the Variations on a theme of Corelli are in a more emotionally detached style, which has made them rather less popular with audiences.