Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op. 3 No. 2
The prelude became one of Rachmaninoff's most famous compositions. His cousin Alexander Siloti was instrumental in securing the Prelude's success throughout the Western world. In the autumn of 1898, he made a tour of Western Europe and the United States, with a program that contained the Prelude. Soon after, London publishers brought out several editions with titles such as The Burning of Moscow, The Day of Judgement, and The Moscow Waltz. America followed suit with other titles, such as The Bells of Moscow. It was so popular that it was referred to as "The Prelude" and audiences would demand it as an encore at his performances, shouting "C-sharp!"
The prelude is organized into three main parts and a coda:
The piece opens with a three note motif at fortissimo which introduces the grim C-sharp minor tonality that dominates the piece. The cadential motif repeats throughout. In the third bar, the volume changes to a piano pianissimo for the exposition of the theme.
The second part is propulsive and marked Agitato (agitated), beginning with highly chromatic triplets. This passionately builds to interlocking chordal triplets that descend into a climactic recapitulation of the main theme, this time in four staves to accommodate the volume of notes. Certain chords in the section are marked with quadruple sforzando.
The piece closes with a brief seven-bar coda which ends quietly.
Prelude in D Major, Op 23 No.4
Although Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of the most successful 20th century composers, he has been snubbed by some musical elitists, even historians. One famous music history book devotes a mere seven lines to him. Rachmaninoff never adopted a contemporary musical idiom, choosing instead to compose in a late-19th-century style, which helped make his music popular with audiences and musicians.
"I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing and I cannot acquire the new. I have made an intense effort to feel the musical manner of today, but it will not come to me" (Sergei Rachmaninoff).
Prelude in G minor, Op 23 No.5
This prelude is second in popularity to the famous Prelude in C-sharp Minor. It has been described as a “contrast of stern reality with a central episode of haunting, nostalgic lyricism; its beauty intensified by a second voice echoing the first” (Ashkenazy).
The form of the piece is similar to the classic rondo: A—B—transition—A. The A section is a march that is chordal and richly sonorous. The B section is ethereal and poignant and has a somewhat Spanish flavor. A counter melody appears in this section that results in the appearance of three voices that create a trio effect. Josef Hofmann said of this section, “anyone who could write this must be noble”.
Rachmaninoff uses the driving rhythmic device of an eighth-note followed by two sixteenth-notes in the A section as well as the triplet figure in the B section to unify the piece. Along with off-beat chords and syncopations these give direction to the line. The variety of chords, propelling rhythms, and rich sonorities embody a true romantic spirit.
Prelude in C minor, Op 23 No.7
It is known that Rachmaninoff favored composing in minor keys, but in his preludes, he alternated between major and minor in order to produce 24 for each key. They came in three different collections: the Morceaux (5) de Fantasie, Op. 3, which contains the popular C sharp minor prelude; Preludes (10), Op. 23; and Preludes (13), Op. 32. This C minor prelude is the seventh in the Op. 23 set and is a restless creation full of tension and mystery and conflicted with brilliance and darkness. Its unsettling elements stand in contrast to other pieces in the set, like the serene and beautiful fourth and tenth. The C minor prelude opens with a nervous rippling theme in the upper register, which conveys a sense of agitation in its searching or wandering manner. Just when the anxious music seems to be arriving at a resolution as it turns softer and more intimate in the assuaging left-hand harmonies, its swirls turn into cascades of notes and the mood becomes fiery again. Still, the music vacillates between the anxious and gentle until the final emphatic chords close the piece with a sense of resolution, if an ambivalent one.
Prelude in G sharp minor (Allegro), Op. 32 No. 12
This is the penultimate of the 13 preludes making up Rachmaninoff's Op. 32 set. It is one of the more popular works in this or any of his large collections and often appears on recital programs and recordings apart from its siblings in the set. It is very typical of Rachmaninoff in that it is yet another work that uses the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) theme. The composer had a special fondness for it, employing it in many compositions, like his Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Dances, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and even in his symphonies. In this Prelude, the Dies Irae appears in a variation form and serves as the main theme. Unsuspecting listeners familiar with the Dies Irae melody might not notice its thematic connection to Rachmaninoff's melody at first. The piece, marked Allegro, opens with a swirling, agitated figure in the right hand over which a melancholy theme is played, which, unlike the Dies Irae, first rises before falling. In the middle section, the music grows more agitated until an eruption is provoked and the theme is played at a faster tempo, taking on the identical contour of the Dies Irae. The main theme then re-appears in its original form, but in a colorfully haunting version with its first notes played in the bass ranges. The piece ends quietly, but without resolution of its agitated manner.