Rachmaninov’s compositions were the last representations of the Romantic Style in Russia. Rachmaninov was born into a musical family and studied the piano at the Conservatoire in St Petersburg from the age of nine. Despite the enormous span of his hands, his technique was precise and clear. His incredible skills as a pianist make his compositions some of the most difficult for virtuoso pianists.
We take a look at seven, of many, great works composed by Rachmaninov.
Prelude in C sharp minor Op. 3 No. 2
Although less assertive than his later works, the Prelude in C sharp minor won Rachmaninov much of his early popularity and became a frequently requested encore in concert. With its attractive ‘dark-hued’ disposition, it is impressive that this work was composed even before his graduation from the Conservatoire in St Petersburg in 1891.
Rachmaninov composed his second piano concerto after a particularly low period, professionally and emotionally, spurred by the difficult reception of his first symphony. The piece is notoriously difficult to play (not everyone can span 12 piano keys with one hand!), and was dedicated to his therapist, Dr. Nicolai Dhal, who encouraged him to start composing again despite bouts of depression.
One of 24 movements in this cycle, No. 5 is a brief, melodic and delicate Prelude. The floating melody, which gradually gains momentum, shows something of Rachmaninov’s idiomatic piano writing and perhaps even subtle evocations of Debussy’s piano music.
This prelude adopts a mysterious quality thanks to the recurring dotted rhythmic motif. Tonal ambiguity constantly asks the listener to interpret whether the piece leans more towards a major or minor tonal world.
This atmospheric orchestral piece shows the ease with which Rachmaninov was able to evoke a sense of place via musical means (tone-painting). Inspired by a painting by Arnold Bocklin, the orchestral colours reflect the sounds of waves and oars as they meet the dark waters, in a characteristically late Romantic style.
This set of solo piano pieces are similar to miniatures: each moment musical features unique passage work, and sound like separate introspective worlds. The miniature size of these pieces show a more humble side to Rachmaninov’s usual bravura virtuoso style.