Rachmaninoff at 150: A Month of Celebration

I’ve been looking forward to this month for a while now! I actually started gathering ideas for an essay or two about Rachmaninoff a year ago, but then I looked up his dates and I realized that 2023 is his sesquicentennial. I’m not going to spend this month blogging about Rachmaninoff and nothing else–it’s also National Poetry Month, after all–but there’s going to be a lot of Rachmaninoff this month. And probably more over the rest of the year, because this is a composer who has meant a great deal to me for quite a few years…going back to high school when I started discovering a particular affinity with the Russian Romantics.

I’ll be posting both here and on my Substack about Rachmaninoff this entire month, so make sure you’re following me on both platforms if you’re at all interested in my personal celebration of one of my most personal relationships with a composer.

Of course, we can’t kick off a month of celebration of Rachmaninoff without actually hearing any Rachmaninoff, can we? So we’ll start with what might be his most famous work, and a work with which he had a strained relationship over his life, because of its tremendous popularity: the Prelude in C-sharp minor, for solo piano. Written as part of a sequence of five small pieces for piano called Morceaux de fantaisie, the Prelude took on a life of its own, to a stunning degree. Rachmaninoff sold the rights to it for a pittance, because he was low on money at the time: he was only 19 years old and was barely a name anywhere, much less the recognition that was to come years later as one of the greatest musicians of his day. Because Imperial Russia was not a signatory to the Berne Convention, Rachmaninoff never received royalties on a work that has been recorded literally hundreds of times and performed live countless times.

The work’s popularity was such that Rachmaninoff could almost never get away with not performing the Prelude at any recital or concert he ever gave. This haunting, doom-stricken and yet lyrical work somehow became an early-20th century classical music analog of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. Its performance was occasionally even newsworthy!

From Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music (Bertensson and Leyda):

As usual, London papers said more about one encore than about the whole program of his recital [a 1933 concert Rachmaninoff played in London]. The News Chronicle headline:


In the midst of the applause he struck the famous opening chords of IT. He did not even wait for the applause to die down, but flung it at the audience like a bone to a dog.

And here is news which will be a consolation to thousands of amateur pianists: he played it, and he muffed it. Yes, in the rapid middle section, which is such a trial to the amateur, Rachmaninoff himself played two wrong notes.

And a reporter from the Star cornered Ibbs, Rachmaninoff’s European manager, for the “inside” story of IT:

“It is quite a mistake to assume that Rachmaninoff hates it,” he explained. “He thinks it is a very good bit of work. What troubles him is the fact that he is expected to play it every time he is seen near a piano.

“It worries him also to think that the vast majority of people know him only by it, whereas he has written other things as good or better.

“But he face the inevitable many years ago. At Saturday’s concert he said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I know my duty. I shall play it.'”

Here “it” is: the very Prelude in C-sharp minor that vexed Rachmaninoff and yet endeared him to music lovers for decades. It’s not hard to understand why it is one of the enduring piano works, right up there with Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata or any of Chopin’s Nocturnes. The Prelude announces itself with three pounding chords that seem made for one another–it’s one of those musical figures that seems less composed so much as discovered by the composer–and then unfolds over the course of four minutes with rhythmic shifts that feel relentless as the pieces ebbs and flows, builds and falls back, drives and sings.

An interesting thing about this recording: it’s a reproduction on a modern player piano, using piano rolls created by Rachmaninoff himself. So it’s not quite the master himself playing…but also, yes, it is.

And here is the composer again, playing the Prelude in the same way: piano rolls for a reproducing piano (link only, as the video owner has disabled embedding). This time, though, the Prelude is in the context of the Morceaux, which casts it into an interesting light. I’ve always been interested in this tension sometimes in classical music when a given work becomes very popular: oftentimes the popular work is only a part of a larger work that is often supplanted by virtue of the incredible popularity of the one piece. Witness the way “Nessun dorma” became one of Luciano Pavarotti’s signature arias, greatly outshining the popularity of Turandot, the Puccini opera from which it comes.

The Prelude in C-sharp minor seems to me a good starting point for Rachmaninoff, though it wasn’t my starting point with him (we’ll get to that). In it you can hear his virtuosity, his lack of concern with the demands he places on the musician, and the somewhat relentless nature of his brooding. These are all qualities to which we will return in his music, again and again…but there are many other qualities to come.

Welcome to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Sesquicentennial month.


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2 Responses to Rachmaninoff at 150: A Month of Celebration

  1. David says:

    A wonderful start to Rachmaninov Month 🙂
    I look forward to reading and listening to more; thank you!

  2. Lee McAulay says:

    Certainly picking up on the “brooding” with this piece. I’m not familiar with most of Rachmaninov’s work and have only a rudimentary knowledge of music, so I’m looking forward to more like this. Thank you!

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