8 of the most beautiful works by Rachmaninoff to play on the piano
In this article, we have selected for you eight of the most beautiful works by Rachmaninoff to play on the piano. From his Preludes to his Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, as well as his famous Piano Concerto No. 2, immerse yourself in the history of the greatest masterpieces by Rachmaninoff for the piano. You will, of course, be able to find all the sheet music with fingering and accompaniments by following the links in the Tomplay applications!
Sergei Vassilievitch Rachmaninov was born in Russia on 2 April 1873 on a large estate close to Novgorod. He was the fourth of six children born to noble parents and lived on the family estate where he had a happy childhood, steeped in the artistic, musical world enjoyed by the Russian aristocracy at that time.
A dreamer, sometimes melancholy but hard-working, the young Sergei studied music with his mother from the age of 4 and continued at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen, he was a pupil of Nikolai Zverev, a friend of Anton Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky.
Zverev was a renowned and respected teacher, for his rigour and also his severity. Some of the talented pupils from his class at the Conservatory boarded with him and had to submit to a draconian work ethic. This demanding teacher was also bent on giving his pupils wide cultural experience through his library and in making them attend plays at the theatre, concerts and operas.
He invited great musicians travelling through Moscow to come and listen to his prodigies. In particular, the young Sergei met Tchaikovsky, who already appreciated the gifts of this young pianist and who inspired the student to rise to the top. Very quickly, Rachmaninoff wished to turn to composition, but he came into conflict with his teacher who saw the playing of the piano at a level of excellence incompatible with composition.
1892: Fantasy Pieces, Opus 3 - No. 2 Prelude in C sharp minor
Hungry for freedom and composition, tired by the hard work sessions imposed by his teacher, Sergei went to live with his aunt Satine and his cousins who used to take him to spend some time at their magnificent estate, Ivanovka, every summer. It was there that he become electrified by his passion and inspiration and composed, in particular, his famous Prelude No. 2 in C sharp minor.
Taken from the five Fantasy Pieces, Opus 3, the Prelude No. 2 in C sharp minor is one of the most famous of Rachmaninoff's pieces for the piano and also one of his first compositions.
Rachmaninoff was only 19 years old when he put it down on paper in 1892 and at the same time began a career as a virtuoso. The Prelude began to become famous during his lifetime, even though he didn't regard it very highly.
In the first Lento part, the theme in chords played by both hands is followed by wide ternary arpeggios on the right hand over bass notes played by the left-hand in the second Agitato part.
In the third part, the theme is taken up in a more developed way with both hands: the chords are richer, heavier and played triple forte. The theme appears much more demonstrative and declamatory and requires a great deal of endurance.
The intensity decreases suddenly over two bars and the piece ends with chords which are more and more calm, recalling the sound of bells, one of the great characteristics of Rachmaninoff's writing for the piano.
Although not a virtuoso piece and among the easiest pieces by Rachmaninoff, it is not simple to play, in spite of the slow tempo: the chordal theme requires a lot of strength, good finger co-ordination and a good hand position in order to be able to reach all the notes in the chord simultaneously without lifting fingers from the keyboard. In addition, the right and left hands cross over each other all the time during the first section.
Rachmaninoff loved the cinema; during a visit to the Walt Disney Studios with Horowitz, he saw a Mickey Mouse film, The Opry House, in which the mouse plays the role of a pianist performing this famous Prelude. He said: "I have heard my inevitable Prelude played well by some of the best pianists, cruelly massacred by others, but no performance has moved me as much as that of the great maestro Mickey Mouse"!
Play the Prelude No. 2 in C sharp minor on solo piano with Tomplay and take advantage of the professional recording of the piece synchronised with the sheet music, to listen to simply for pleasure or for inspiration!
1892: Fantasy Pieces, Opus 3 - No. 1 Elegy in E flat minor
At Ivanovka, he fell in love with his cousin Natalia, who would later become his wife. He passed his piano examination in 1891 and wrote his Fantasy Pieces in 1892, as well as his one-act opera, Aleka, encouraged by Tchaikovsky, for which he won a composition prize one year early.
Let's continue to explore the Fantasy Pieces: the title of this cycle reflects more the character of these pieces, rather than their musical form, as none of them is really "fantastic" in structure.
Rachmaninoff played them in public for the first time in Kharkov on 27 December 1892 and two months later to the day, he gave Tchaikovsky - his idol and mentor - the first copies of the series which had just been published.
Sergei Rachmaninoff is better known for his explosive Preludes than for his contemplative Elegies. However, the unexpected gentleness and fluidity of the Elegy in E flat minor, the first piece in the cycle, stands out from the composer's other typical creations.
The Elegy does not have the dramatic character of the famous Prelude in C sharp minor presented above. Here, the gentle melancholy of the piece invites you to more serene introspection. It does not attract the listener with a catchy tune, but rather captures the heart with its lightness and clarity, marvellously illustrating the composer's genius in this style which he nevertheless explored so little.
A multi-faceted pianist, both sensitive and a great technician, Rachmaninoff still surprises with this work which changes our expectations when listening to it, often modifying harmonic cadences and rhythmic patterns. The melody in the left hand does not overwhelm the right hand: it echoes and supports it.
The Elegy is difficult to put in a box: it is sad without being depressing, melancholic without being banal and, just like our emotions, is complex and ever-changing.
Play the Elegy in E flat minor on solo piano with Tomplay and take advantage of the professional recording of the piece synchronised with the sheet music, to listen to simply for pleasure or for inspiration.
1900: Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18 - I. Moderato
▶️ Play the first Moderato movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18, with an orchestral accompaniment
Rachmaninoff successfully pursued his brilliant career as a composer and pianist which led him to travel to Europe, but the adventure took another turn with the creation of his First Symphony, which turned out to be disastrous...
Let's turn to the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor. This is without doubt the most popular work by Rachmaninoff. However, he was at his lowest ebb when he wrote its first notes around 1900.
His First Symphony, created in 1897 under the direction of the conductor Alexandre Glazounov, was a failure. It was said that the latter was drunk and that the performance was a fiasco: Rachmaninoff was unable to get into the concert hall on the evening of the première. The critics were merciless. The work bears a motto: "Vengeance is mine".
The composer then went into a depression which lasted more than three years. It was the neurologist Nikolai Dahl, also a good amateur musician, who treated him using hypnosis, who suggested he should write a second Piano Concerto. It was thus that he came out of his depression for good and dedicated his Concerto to his doctor and friend.
On 27 October 1901, the Concerto No. 2 was performed for the first time by the Moscow Philharmonic Society and met with resounding success!
The first Moderato movement begins solely with the piano which resounds like church bells, faithful to Rachmaninoff's music. A storm of varied themes follows where the piano and orchestra mix together and complement each other, ending in a grandiose finale.
In this first movement, the composer appears to stage the exorcism of his darkest and most painful memories which would have led to his downfall.
Play the first Moderato movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor available in several levels of difficulty with accompaniment by a real orchestra: we have studio-recorded some professional orchestral musicians in order to offer you an accompaniment of incomparable quality.
1900: Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18 - II. Adagio sostenuto
▶️ Play the second Adagio sostenuto movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2, Opus 18, with an orchestral accompaniment
In this fabulous masterpiece, the Piano Concerto No. 2, musicality always calls for virtuosity - virtuosity in performance as much as technical virtuosity, which intensifies the musical developments rather than simply linking them together.
Playing Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 is not easy, especially for pianists who have small hands or thick fingers, as the filigree motifs require both a wide stretch of the hand and precise control of the weight of the fingers.
Listening to the second Adagio sostenuto movement, the musician appears to us to have been reborn from his ashes and come back to life. His condition remains fragile, but he has renewed hope.
This Concerto has largely inspired some great musical creations from all eras and the second movement in particular served as a basis for the theme of the 1976 Pop-Rock hit "All by Myself" by Eric Carmen and David Bowie's hit "Life on Mars?".
Play the second Adagio sostenuto movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor available in several levels of difficulty and with an accompaniment by a real orchestra: we have studio-recorded professional orchestral musicians in order to offer you an accompaniment of incomparable quality.
Thanks to our collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, the original sheet music of this second movement contains the mythical recording by pianist Sviatoslav Richter, to listen to simply for pleasure or for inspiration.
1901: Suite No. 2, Opus 17
Rachmaninoff composed the four Introduction, Waltz, Romance and Tarantella movements of his Suite No. 2 for two pianos when writing his successful Second Piano Concerto, having regained his esteem and enthusiasm.
From the beginning, the work is assertive and audacious. The solid opening march in the Introduction precedes a sparkling Waltz, the first of two dances in the work, which offer a maturely romantic melody with a chord rhythm over a fluid accompaniment, another great characteristic of Rachmaninoff's writing.
The third Romance movement is magnificently conceived and is overflowing with lyricism and fantasy. The essential part of the movement is introspective, but the central, passionate high point revisits the expressive world of the preceding Waltz.
Rachmaninoff closes his second Suite with another dance, a Tarantella. Here again, the composer is in his best form, creating a finale demanding astounding virtuosity from both pianists.
In the whole Suite, Rachmaninoff combined the two piano parts in such a way as they melt into each other, as though creating an indivisible entity.
Sergei Rachmaninoff and his cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti - also renowned for his talent on the piano - successfully performed the work for the first time on 24 November 1901 during a concert by the Moscow Philharmonic Society, a strong symbol of renewal for its erstwhile discouraged creator.
Play the Suite No. 2, Opus 17, with a piano accompaniment: choose to play the Primo or Secondo piano part, accompanied by a professional recording of the other piano!
Rachmaninoff's 10 Preludes are technically demanding, while remaining accessible. Among them, the Prelude No. 5 in G minor, alla marcia, the first-born of the series, is the most well-known. It evokes the strength and immensity of the Russian composer's native country, as well as the power and wealth of its culture.
We know that Rachmaninoff's music is well-known for the great technical prowess required and this Prelude is no exception: the first theme requires a great deal of movement of the left hand. As for the second, it can almost be considered as a study, giving the endless arpeggios played on the left hand the polyphonic melody on the right hand.
When studying such a powerful piece, it is important not to be carried away by its romantic and passionate side, in order to retain the interpretation it requires and not to let bad habits become ingrained.
Play the Prelude No. 5 Alla marcia, Opus 23, on solo piano with Tomplay and take advantage of the professional recording of the piece synchronised with the sheet music, to listen to simply for pleasure or for inspiration!
1912: 14 Romances, Opus 34 - No. 14 Vocalise
The first fifteen years of the 20th century were fifteen wonderful years during which Rachmaninoff lived happily and comfortably, particularly at the Satine estate near Moscow, where he had always enjoyed taking refuge during the summer to rest from his many tours and composing.
The wonderful Vocalise which we are presenting here is the last piece in Rachmaninoff's collection of 14 Romances, Opus 34. It was originally written for a soprano or tenor voice with a piano accompaniment and has no lyrics in order to be sung using the sound of only one vowel.
Being very expressive, this piece reveals both great joy and great sadness. It is sombre, sacred music.
It was composed in 1912 and published during the dark days of the first World War in 1915, a period also marked by the death of his friend, the composer Alexander Scriabin. Another difficult period was then beginning for Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Play the Vocalise, Opus 34 on solo piano with Tomplay and take advantage of the separate hands feature, allowing you to practise one hand accompanied by a high-quality recording of the other hand!
1934: Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, Opus 43
The beginning of the Great War marked the end of the happiest period in Rachmaninoff's life. He felt his need to create repressed and was tormented by thoughts about death. At the beginning of 1916, the composer's anxiety turned into an emotional crisis accompanied by physical pain, probably psychosomatic in nature.
The war was a disaster for his country and the October Revolution was soon upon it, which forced him to permanently leave his beloved native land.
Leaving with "his hands as his only asset", as one of his friends would say before his exile, he began a new life as a full-time piano virtuoso at the age of 44 with his friend Nikolai Medtner.
The necessity of working intensively on the instrument and of building up a repertoire distanced him from composition. In spite of everything, his tours in the United States and Europe, which he came to think of as forced labour, allowed him to live very comfortably.
During the autumn of 1930, Sergei Rachmaninoff was 57. Although he loved nothing better than family life and only travelled owing to professional obligation, he was tired, worn out by concerts and affected by the failure of his fourth Piano Concerto.
So, he decided to move back to Europe, where he had a house built in Switzerland which he named Sénar, from his first name and that of his wife Natalia and ending in the "r" of Rachmaninoff. He was happy in his home, which reminded him of the house of his Satine cousins and he composed there, worked in the garden and cared tenderly for his two grandchildren.
The last work we would like to present is a grandiose work which bears the name of Rhapsody. However, it is in reality structured on the principle of a theme and variations.
There are twenty-four of them, all based on the Caprice for Solo Violin No. 24 by Niccolò Paganini. Before Rachmaninoff, Johannes Brahms, in his Variations on a theme by Paganini, and Franz Liszt in his Six Études after Paganini, had already exploited this theme.
Although the work is designed to played by only one musician, it can be divided into three sections corresponding to the three movements of a concerto. It would therefore be quite sensible to think that this Rhapsody is in fact Rachmaninoff's Fifth Piano Concerto in disguise.
It is above all the 18th variation which has made this work's name, the ultimate and emblematic expression of Rachmaninoff's late romanticism. One could believe that it has nothing to do with Paganini, yet when we look closer, we can see that the genius composer has in fact inversed the notes from the theme by Paganini, using horizontal symmetry!
The Tomplay sheet music of the Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini, Opus 43, is synchronised with a professional orchestral accompaniment studio-recorded by us: start the audio track of the orchestra alone, which will make your sheet music scroll automatically, and play accompanied by the orchestra in your own living room!
The last work.
In 1941, although only composing very rarely, Rachmaninoff got his last work, the Symphonic Dances, an allegory of life, down on paper. He obtained American nationality following the purchase of a house in Beverly Hills and, around 1942, began to feel pain from the lung cancer which killed him on 28th March 1943, at the age of 69. According to his will, he was buried in the State of New York, far from Ivanovka.
Thus ends the history of this legendary Russian composer and pianist, exiled following the 1917 communist revolution to become one of the highest-paid concert stars of his time, one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century and one of the greatest composers of the end of the romantic period.
Throughout this article, we have chosen to spell his name "Rachmaninoff" in the European way, partly because Sergei Vassilievitch Rachmaninov had always written his name in the Latin alphabet as Serge Rachmaninoff, with his first name in French and a double "f" at the end of his surname. This adaptation doubtless allowed him to avoid his patronym being murdered by European tongues, as well as being able to export his music more easily!
You can find all the Rachmaninoff sheet music in the Tomplay piano catalogue and take advantage of the many features in the application to work on these exquisite, often complex, works in the best conditions.