Rachmaninoff, Prelude in D major (op. 23 no. 4)

Again a leap in time, and again piano music. Today we are at the start of the 20th century, in 1901, and Sergej Rachmaninoff is entering the stage. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), a Russian composer and pianist, wrote incredibly intense music, sometimes even depressing, but always strongly emotional. He suffered from a depression in the 1890’s.

At the start of the 20th century piano recordings became common, and Rachmaninoff playing some of his own compositions are available. Rachmaninoff was a great pianist himself. He had extremely big hands and this is reflected in his pieces; some can be very difficult to play. Physically it is simply not possible for most pianists to play in the same way that he played his pieces.

The piece I chose for today is a prelude. A prelude is originally seen as a preface (from Latin: ‘before-playing’) , a piece that introduces a longer or more complex piece. Often, a collection of 24 preludes is written, to cover all major and minor keys; see for example Bach’s Wohltemperierte Klavier and Chopin’s preludes. However, at the time Chopin wrote his preludes, they had become independent concert pieces. Some of them are very beautiful, and I will definitely post them here at a later moment. Rachmaninoff gathered only 10 preludes in opus 23, but together with his 13 preludes in opus 32, and his (most famous) prelude in C-sharp minor, he also covers all 24 minor and major keys. He said about these short pieces:

“A short piece can be a sustainable masterpiece, quite the same as a great composition. […] When I write a small piece for piano, I am in the hands of my thematic inspiration that must be realized in the short and straightforward.” (translated from rachmaninov.fr)

The prelude of today is the one in D major. When searching on Youtube, very different recordings of this piece can be found. Compare for example Richter to Sokolov. The recordings that I chose today are (like last week!) from the Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy – some people say that the Russian romantic compositions can only be correctly interpreted by Russian pianists.

Now that you have heard this prelude, please press play again, and now listen to it:

  • The prelude consists, like Beethoven’s appassionata of two weeks ago, of a theme with variations; something that you might not realize upon first listening to the piece.
  • Before the melody starts, the left hand accompaniment already starts, whispering pianissimo, setting the mood of the piece. It continues throughout the entire piece. One of my teachers would call this a perpetually moving left hand, forming the basis upon which the melody can build.
  • The melody starts at the third measure, with a simple F♯-E-F♯, continues to build up, reaches a small climax, and then ends around 1:20 (the end of the first page). The mood is sad, the melody seems to ask questions -why?-, and without having answers we return to the key in which the melody started, D major.
  • On the second page the melody and accompaniment is completely repeated, but is enriched with a decoration in the right hand;  this is the first ‘variation’. To me it sounds like a voice of hope that lightens up the atmosphere. But again, we return to D major without answers.
  • At 2:33 the second variation starts; this however not so clear as before, since the rhythm changes (triplets in the left hand). The piece gradually raises to its climax. Questions are asked, some answers are given, but we end in a struggle, in sorrow, in despair.
  • A descend from the climax brings us back to the theme (3:33) – the third variation. The right hand plays the melody again, and decorates it with lonely high notes, which themselves are an echo of the melody (!!). The mood is peaceful, changes one last time into a final emotional call for attention, but then ends in resignation.

I hope you enjoyed the piece. For me it is a small masterpiece to which I cherish strong memories. It feels like a short summary of the struggles we can encounter in life.

I am not really myself except in music. Music is enough for an entire lifetime, but an entire lifetime is not enough for music.”

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