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21. Rachmaninov – Prelude in g minor, Op. 23 No. 5

March 22, 2012

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) was one of the finest pianists and composers of the early 20th century. Rachmaninov is known as the very last holdout of the Romantic era – while his contemporaries were exploring possibilities of new musical trends of the early 20th century (including polytonality, atonality, serialism), Rachmaninov seemed to have his heart stuck back in 1880. His music is full of beautiful soaring melodies, sweeping emotion, a keen sense of the dramatic, as well as tonality, clear structural thinking, and a good amount of “conventionality” of the old days.

Rachmaninov wasn’t a particularly happy person, by his temperament, and by circumstances in his life. This is evident in his music – there is a very deep melancholy present in all of his music, which makes some of his melody writing strikingly beautiful. Fellow Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called Rachmaninov “Six Feet of Gloom.”

But actually, Rachmaninov was Six and a Half Feet of Gloom. And his hands were famously gigantic – he could reach over an octave and a half on a piano with his hands (with his left hand, he could play a C-Eb-G-C-G chord). And he utilized the size of his hands in his piano writing, using large and complex chords and wide arpeggios, which creates this truly colossal sound in much of his piano music.

On that, here is one of the thirteen Preludes from his Opus 23 set:

Rachmaninov – Prelude in g minor, opus 23, No. 5

“A” section:

0:09 Opening motif. Very structural, angular, heavy, and insistently rhythmic. Listen for repeated usage of the “3 short notes” building block. Not much lyrical melody going on, but it has a very “lurking” kind of quality.

0:45 Second idea: Also very structural and rhythmically defined. Listen for the alternating of high register and low register notes, using a large span of the piano. Small buildup going higher and higher in register, before it releases and resolves back downwards with a quick run of descending notes.

1:02 Repeat of opening motif, but more forceful instead of “lurking.” at 0:54, the progression gets interrupted, and a sequence of descending large chords takes over and then winds down, alternating with an “insistent” low note.

“B” section:

1:29 Suddenly, a completely different texture and character – where the opening section was structural, angular, and rhythmic, this section is very melodic, fluid, weightless, expansive, relaxed – overall, very “liquid.” Listen to the large arpeggios in the left hand, again, spanning a large range of the piano, supporting very expressive and evocative melodic material played in the right hand.

1:56: Another round of the new melody, but in between the left hand arpeggios and the right hand melody, listen for the 3rd voice in the middle (which hand is playing this?!). This trick developed during the Romantic era – writing in a such a way where it sounds like there are more than 2 hands playing.

2:32 Hints of a transition back to the A section.

“A” section and coda:

2:42 Back in the A section theme, but with different developments than before – compared with the earlier counterparts, sometimes feeling more urgent, agitated, even a bit macabre.

3:06 Second idea, pretty much same as the first time around. At this point, note the very “conventional” and organized structure that this prelude is following.

3:24 Back to initial theme, here with the most deviation and development from the original premise.

3:42 Closing coda section. And then it all ends in a little whirlwind and a wisp.

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