Rachmaninov began to learn the piano with his mother at the age of four. He continued his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then at the Moscow Conservatory from 1885. Here he studied piano and composition, and met Scriabin, who was a fellow pupil.
Rachmaninov graduated from the Conservatory in 1892 with high honours both as a pianist and composer. His diploma piece, the opera Aleko, was performed at the Bolshoi the next year. During the following years he composed mostly piano pieces, including his famous C sharp Minor Prelude, some songs and orchestral works. In 1897 his Symphony No. 1 was premiered and conducted (quite badly) by Glazunov . It was a total disaster. Rachmaninov was distraught, and wrote nothing until 1900, when he sought medical help for his state of mind.
After this revival, he wrote his famous Piano Concerto No. 2, and began to conduct professionally, performing in Moscow and London. Between 1904 and 1906, he conducted at the Bolshoi. He wrote profusely, producing operas, liturgical music, orchestral works, piano pieces and songs, even though he was very busy with concert appearances. In 1909 he made his first American tour as a pianist, for which he wrote the Piano Concerto No. 3.
Soon after the Communist October Revolution, he left Russia with his family. They arrived in New York in 1918 and settled there. Rachmaninov did travel, though, spending periods in Paris (where he founded a publishing firm), Dresden and Switzerland. He wrote nothing further until 1926 when he composed the Piano Concerto No. 4 and, over the next 15 years, only wrote a small number of large-scale works.
During this period, his highly successful but exhausting career as a concert pianist on both sides of the Atlantic (though never again in Russia) enabled Rachmaninov to support his family but left little time for composition. As a pianist he was famous for his precision, rhythmic drive, legato and clarity of texture and for the broad design of his performances. His music remains an indispensable part of the repertory.