My Love/Hate Relationship with Rachmaninoff

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My Love/Hate Relationship with Rachmaninoff

Once again I am working on the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# Minor.

I first “learned” it as an eighth grader. I was never able to play it fluidly, instead stopping over and over to decipher the ledger lines. I think Sister Mercy, my piano teacher, decided the most merciful thing to do was assign me a different piece.

I revisited it every few years as an adult, resolving that this time I’d master it, but finally giving up.

It’s now come into my hands again, and I alternate between loving it and despising it.

If you don’t know the prelude I mean, here it is, from a piano roll Rachmaninoff created himself; the visual is the actual sheet music.

The piece has three sections: a slow introduction, a frantic middle section that moves in triplets, and an ending similar to the beginning that is marked tempo primo, although Rachmaninoff’s piano roll plays it faster.

Years ago it occurred to me that I could listen to the piece on YouTube. I was shocked to discover that the melody of the first and third sections in not the bell-like chords, but the deep bass octave three-note motifs. Each of those sections also includes a run of nineteen overlapping chords, in which the right thumb sometimes crosses over the left, then under the left.

The agitato section in the middle has the most beautiful Russian harmonies in chromatic arpeggios—that is, they’re beautiful as you’re learning them at a slow tempo. Played as intended, the first notes of each triplet form a step-wise motif of four or two notes; the rest of the notes disappear in mud.

Mom's piano

The final section recalls the beginning, except it’s more complicated. Now the pianist must read four staves instead of two, and the third staff changes from bass clef to treble clef and back to bass clef again. Each hand plays four-note chords that are quite discordant. I often recheck my chords only to find that I forgot about an accidental that occurred earlier in the measure, but sometimes the sour-sounding notes are absolutely correct. Some of those chords are virtually impossible for a small hand to play—a wide stretch between the second and third fingers, with an e# next to a f# with the index finger and thumb in the left hand. Honestly, who writes chords like that? To understand how I feel, look at the drawing of the hands below Rachmaninoff’s name in this illustration.

I think you need a creative solution to playing these impossible notes:

(Actually, I am impressed that Joo can even correctly position those sticks.)

Have you mastered the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# Minor? Do you have any tips for me? Please share in the comments below.

5 responses »

  1. Love this piece! You inspire me to play it again. I have a piano student working on it so I forwarded this to her. Have you tried practicing the right hand in the middle section as block chords very slowly? I also practice this section using dotted rhythms (like a swing rhythm both dotted eighth sixteenth, then sixteenth dotted eighth). This is more easily demonstrated than it is for me to describe it in writing 😀. I really think the block idea is the best for the chords!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was my last recital piece as a high school senior. Thank you to my teacher, Mrs. Welty of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for her help. She lived 10 blocks from my home and was so kind and patient. I can no longer play this because of arthritis. My advice? Play to enjoy it, not to perfect it. Thanks for the memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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