His most important works in this genre are the 24 preludes that cover all 24 major and minor keys. These were, however, written and published at different times, not as a unified set. Of all the composers who wrote sets of 24 pieces in all the keys, Rachmaninoff seems to be the only one who did not originally set out with such a goal in mind.
He also wrote three other individual preludes.
Rachmaninoff's first attempt at a prelude was that in E-flat minor, one of his Four Pieces in 1887. In July 1891 there was a Prelude in F major, which he also arranged for cello and piano. Neither of these pieces was published in his lifetime.
Prelude in C-sharp minor
In 1892 he published Morceaux de fantaisie as his Op. 3. This contained five assorted piano pieces all with different titles, the second of which was the Prelude in C-sharp minor. The Prelude soon took on a life of its own, becoming his "calling card", but also an albatross around his neck, as concert audiences demanded he play it as an encore, no matter what else he had given them, and he grew to hate it. He gave the nickname "Frankenstein" to the Prelude due to the frequency of its playing and the nearly complete lack of emotion that went into it.
10 Preludes, Op. 23
In 1901 Rachmaninoff wrote his Prelude in G minor. This was not published until he had completed nine more preludes in 1903, the set of 10 becoming his Op. 23. These were all in different keys, none of which was C-sharp minor, but it is not known whether he fully intended by this time to eventually complete the full complement of 24 preludes in different keys, to emulate earlier examples by Bach, Chopin, Alkan, Scriabin and others. There is nothing to suggest this intention from the order of the keys:
- F-sharp minor, B‑flat major, D minor, D major, G minor, E-flat major, C minor, A-flat major, E-flat minor, G-flat major.
There is one pair of parallel keys (D minor/major) and two pairs of relative keys (E-flat major/C minor; and E‑flat minor/G-flat major), the remaining four preludes satisfying neither criterion. However, by choosing 11 different keys for his first 11 published preludes, he was at least keeping his options open.
13 Preludes, Op. 32
By 1910 Rachmaninoff had definitely decided to complete the set of 24, publishing 13 preludes, Op. 32, covering the remaining 13 keys:
- C major, B‑flat minor, E major, E minor, G major, F minor, F major, A minor, A major, B minor, B major, G-sharp minor, D-flat major.
In this opus there are four pairs of parallel keys (E, F, A and B, major/minor) and three pairs of relative keys (B major/G-sharp minor, C major/A minor, B flat minor/D flat Major).
In 1917, to express his unhappiness with the October Revolution, Rachmaninoff wrote a Prelude in D minor. Although he left Russia forever only two months later, taking virtually none of his own music with him, the manuscript of this piece survived and was first published in his centenary year 1973.
Rachmaninoff's 24 published preludes of Opp. 3, 23, and 32 have most often been recorded as a unified set of 24. He himself was somewhat more diffident: he recorded much of his own music, but only eight of the 24 preludes (C-sharp minor, G minor, G‑flat major, E major, G major, F minor, F major, G-sharp minor); and he never performed more than four preludes in any single concert. However, it was in keeping with the practice of the times to play selected pieces rather than entire lengthy works.
The complete 24 Preludes have been recorded by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Sergio Fiorentino, Rustem Hayroudinoff, Dame Moura Lympany, Steven Osborne, Michael Ponti, Alexis Weissenberg and others. Rustem Hayroudinoff's Complete Preludes (Chandos Records) was selected by Classic FM Magazine as part of the ‘four discs essential Rachmaninoff collection’.
- Hyperion Records
- The Performances of Rachmaninoff – A Discography, Notes from RCA's The Complete Rachmaninoff, 5 vols, 1973.