Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943) was one of the finest pianists of his generation and the last great Romantic Russian composer. Rachmaninoff first learnt piano with his mother and studied at the St Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, graduating in 1892. He quickly won popularity as a composer. He emigrated with his family to the USA in 1918. He founded a publishers in Paris, devoted to Russian music, and was an early proponent of recorded music. His criticism of the Soviet Union in 1931 led to a ban on the performance of his works in the USSR. Midway through his 1942–3 tour he became ill and died of cancer in March 1943. Rachmaninoff’s music, innately Russian in feel, possesses a profound expressive beauty. His often virtuoso writing for the piano is evidence of his extraordinary facility as a performer, but melody and atmosphere are always placed foremost.
Rachmaninov’s father Wassili (or Vassili) was a good amateur pianist. Amongst Wassili’s repertoire was a simple polka which he frequently played to the amusement of his talented son. Clearly under the impression that it was a piece his father had written, Rachmaninov composed this deliciously knowing arrangement of the polka in 1911, entitling it Polka de W.R. - (W)assili (R)achmaninov. In fact, the polka that Rachmaninov father and son enjoyed was the Scherzpolka or Turtle Dove Polka, Op 303, by Franz Behr. Though the middle section of the Scherzpolka is not used by Rachmaninov, with Behr’s theme and an original countermelody to accompany the return of the main theme, the Polka de W.R. is as much a transcription as others by Rachmaninov and, as such, should properly be designated ‘Behr-Rachmaninov’.