Born in Semyonovo, Russia, April 1, 1873; died in Beverly Hills, March 28, 1943
Selections from Preludes Opp. 3, 23 & 32
Composed in 1892, 1903 & 1910; approx. 45 minutes
Sergei Rachmaninoff, like so many other great pianist-composers, wrote 24 keyboard preludes that covered all the available major and minor keys. But it’s almost certain that this was not his initial goal. While the prelude sets by Bach, Chopin, Hummel, Busoni, Heller, Alkan, Cui, Scriabin, Shchedrin and Shostakovich were each conceived and written as unified collections, Rachmaninoff composed his in three installments, over a relatively long period of time.
The first to appear, the infamous prelude in C-sharp minor, was composed in 1892 and published the following year alongside some other piano miniatures as Rachmaninoff’s Op. 3. It was one of the first works the 19-year-old composer wrote as a “free artist,” having just graduated earlier in 1892 from the Moscow Conservatory. A notable success at its first performance, it has only continued to grow in popularity since then. It can now be heard in everything from movie soundtracks to Olympic skating routines, and has been sampled in the music of popular musicians running the stylistic gamut from heavy metal bands to the Beastie Boys, EnVogue and The Piano Guys.
In 1903 Rachmaninoff then assembled a set of ten preludes, Op. 23, which one critic has suggested were written primarily to divert the public’s attention away from the exasperating popularity of the C-sharp minor prelude. As with many of his works written during this period, the Op. 23 Preludes derive much of their style from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto from 1901. The wide expressive range, the inventiveness of the piano figurations, the sophisticated technique and the economy of materials all speak to Rachmaninoff’s newly-discovered confidence as an artist. Russian audiences were especially responsive to this new style and detected a specifically nationalistic quality in these Preludes.
While most sets of keyboard preludes are arranged in some kind of logical key order, the order of Rachmaninoff’s Op. 23 Preludes is less apparent. He alternates major and minor keys, but the sequence in which they are published relies more on relationships of musical substance than on key. The composer also considered them as somewhat independent works, and throughout his own performing career he programmed selections from Op. 23 in different orders and groupings. From this set, the martial G-minor prelude (No. 5) is indisputably the second most famous of Rachmaninoff’s piano preludes, and it is thought to have been written earlier than the others, perhaps in 1901.
Rachmaninoff’s last 13 preludes were composed and published in 1910 as Op. 32. These preludes could just as easily have been titled études—they are larger in proportion than his earlier works and more compositional in their exploration of thematic potential. (By the same token, Rachmaninoff’s first set of Études-Tableaux from 1911 are less “études” than they are “tableaux.”) The Preludes in G (No. 5) and G-sharp minor (No. 12) from this set have an added distinction—they were known to have been performed by the composer as encores after the premiere of his Third Piano Concerto in April 1910.
© 2013 Luke Howard
Back to Top