Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer who lived from 1873-1943, would be aptly characterized as someone who was displaced both physically and artistically. After the Revolution of 1917, he left his homeland never to return and thereafter felt a longing and nostalgia which never left him. This melancholy infuses much of his music along with the influence of the music of the Eastern Orthodox church. The other displacement, was that his music was written more in the vein of the Romantic era rather than the twentieth century. If one compares the music of Stravinsky (1882-1971) it becomes apparent how much more “contemporary” was the music of Stravinsky than that of Rachmaninoff. But Rachmaninoff followed his own path and we are the richer for it.
This week’s listening assignment will be the Prelude in C# minor, the same key as the Moonlight Sonata and the Fantasie-Impromptu. This is one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous pieces and he himself performed it many times, not always enthusiastically. Listen at the beginning for the sound of the “bells” depicted both by the low sonorous chords and the moving upper register octaves. The sound of bells pealing from the cathedral would have been a familiar sound to him as a child in his native country and that sound is imitated in the opening of this piece. This opening is followed by a cascade of notes playing around a four note -chromatic- downward -stepping motive that builds in intensity until the opening bell motive returns only this time with even more octaves and using seemingly every note on the piano. Imagine yourself playing this piece someday and how much fun it will be to create these sounds on the piano!