Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Reading Adorno's Reading of the Rachmaninov Prelude in C-Sharp Minor: Metaphors of Destruction, Gestures of Power

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Reading Adorno's Reading of the Rachmaninov Prelude in C-Sharp Minor: Metaphors of Destruction, Gestures of Power

Article excerpt

I. Reception

[1.1] The unprecedented popularity of Rachmaninov's Prelude in C-sharp Minor is well documented. Written at the age of 18, shortly after Rachmaninov graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, the prelude was performed for the first time at the Moscow Electric Exhibition in September of 1892. A review of the concert by the magazine Artiste reported:

Exceptional interest was lent to the concert by the participation of S.V. Rachmaninoff, who graduated this spring from the Moscow Conservatory. . . . A group of solo numbers, including a Prélude of his own composition . . . aroused enthusiasm (Bertensson and Leyda 1956, 49).(1)

More than mere enthusiasm, some claim it was a performance that subsequently "catapulted Rachmaninoff to international fame" (Cunningham 2001, 3). Many marked the 1892 Exhibition as the beginning of the career of one of the world's most popular piano pieces, a piece that would bring to its composer "everything from fame to contempt, ease and embarrassment, and annoyance aplenty."(2) Henceforth, the celebrity of the prelude grew; audiences routinely demanded it as an encore to Rachmaninov's recitals by shouting out for "the C-sharp." Even after thirty-seven years of concertizing, it was reported that no recital of his ever ended without this prelude as a tacitly understood final encore (Lyle et al. 1939, 216).

[1.2] The reasons behind any such musical work's excessive popularity are, of course, complex and difficult to recover, dependent on the life experiences, socio-cultural conditions, and motivations of the audience of the time. Indeed, historiography teaches us that to speculate about such things is a dicey enterprise. Nevertheless, it is exactly this question that has long engaged the speculation of Rachmaninov's critics and, in fact, it is well known that Rachmaninov himself was rather perplexed as to the reasons for the enduring popularity of his C-sharp Minor Prelude. Below is a portion of a 1910 interview with the composer, which took place seventeen years after the Prelude's premiere and the year following Rachmaninov's first tour to the United States. Here, he expresses his surprise upon learning of the continued popularity of the work, and he seems to try to distance himself from it somewhat by claiming that it was by now just a part of the past:

One thing which I hope to achieve by my visit to this country will be the disclosure that I have other claims for my standing in the musical world beyond the fact that I once wrote a Prelude in the key of C Sharp Minor. In my own country I have quite lived down this particular composition. In fact, it had grown to be a far-off memory of my youth, until I went to England a few years ago. There I learned to my surprise, that all young pianists played it. Shortly afterward I received an invitation to visit the United States. I wrote to inquire if I were well enough known here to be assured of engaging public interest. I was promptly informed that every musician knew me as the composer of the C Sharp Minor Prelude (Rachmaninov 1910, 127).

Likewise, a 1926 writer for the magazine Musical Opinion pondered this Prelude's mysterious success above and beyond that of Rachmaninov's twenty-three other preludes within the opus 23 and 32 collections:

The penalties of fame are many and various, and not the least of them is that which attends the composer who is fortunate-or unfortunate-enough to write a work which, for some mysterious reason, generally not due to intrinsic worth, becomes unexpectedly and extraordinarily famous. The instance that will leap immediately to the mind is Rachmaninoff and his Prelude in C sharp minor. . . . The fame of this particular piece is probably due . . . to the rather sensational nature of the music; and also, possibly to the reason that it sounds much more difficult than it actually is. Indeed, the fact of the last two pages being laid out for four staves naturally gives the performer a certain standing in Clapham drawing-rooms [an area of south London], which a piece laid out in the usual manner in two staves might fail to do. …

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