1910 – A Vintage Year for Preludes by Debussy and Rachmaninoff

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In 1910 , George V (above, centre) became King of England, the Zeppelin took its first commercial flight and  E.M. Forster published Howard’s End. There were Champagne  Riots in France (below), caused by the failure of the grape harvest. But it was a vintage year for Preludes. Debussy completed his Preludes Book 1, and Rachmaninoff completed  his Preludes Op 32.

I’ve written in earlier blogposts about certain Debussy Preludes; from Book 1 :

Danseuses de Delphes, Voiles, La Fille aux cheveux de lin,  Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest,
La danse de Puck, and from Book 2: Hommage à S Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C and Ondine.  Each of Debussy’s Preludes has a descriptive title, found at the end of the piece, almost as an afterthought.  So let’s now look at Rachmaninoff’s twenty-four preludes.

Anyone looking for either the pattern of the circle of 5ths, or the key pattern used by Bach in Rachmaninoff’s Preludes will be disappointed; indeed, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor was published as part of his Suite Op 3. His Op 23 Preludes, of 1903,  contain preludes in what seem a random choice of keys. Look, however, at the Op 32 set, and we see that the  keys needed to complete a cycle of twenty-four are all present and correct, if not immediately in order.

Prelude Op 32 No 5 in G major shows Rachmaninoff at his lyrical best. Above a gently undulating accompaniment, a limpid melody sings and soars, the flow aided and abetted by teasing cross-rhythms. The RH occasionally crosses over the LH to add depth, sonority and resonance below. The music modulates to the dominant before a fleet-fingered cadenza and trill introduce the minor key; the sun is covered by clouds and the bass line sinks lower and lower, finally settling at its deepest with a low C.

But the sun re-emerges, as the melody, now restored to G Major, soars higher and higher before wending its way down again. It comes to rest, and a brief coda of tangled chromaticism resolves onto the final chords. Note the two-note slur – details matter!

Two recordings of interest – firstly Rachmaninoff’s own, and then a masterclass recorded at the Royal College of Music, where young Junior Department pianist Anthony Tat is put through his paces by Lang Lang.





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