Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3 No.2

In high school, when I told my friend Paul Mankowski, whose family seemed to know everything about classical music, that I really liked Rachmaninov, he told me I had to listen to the Prelude in C-sharp minor. Never had I heard anything like this piece. It sounded to me like pure madness, wrestled with, captured, and channeled into music. This piece so impressed me that I decided that I had to learn how to play it on the piano.

Now, of course you realize, I did not know how to play the piano. But being young and naïve, I thought that if I bought the sheet music and found a willing teacher, they could just teach me that one piece. I wasn’t actually asking for that much, I reasoned. It wasn’t like I wanted to learn how to play every piece of music on the piano. Just this one piece. So I went out in search of the music and a teacher.

I already had a piano. “Wait,” you might say. “Didn’t he once write that his parents had made him play the clarinet?” Yes, they did, but we also had an old upright piano that we bought for $25 from the elementary school across the street from my house, when they upgraded their pianos. This was back in the late 1960s and my mother was into crafts and furniture refinishing at the time. She painted it a light, dusty green and then started to “antique” by rubbing on some kind of strange stain. She lost steam somewhere during the project and never did finish it. It ended up in our TV room in our old farm-house, where it remained silent for the most part, yielding up “chopsticks” from time to time when we had visitors.

I only heard a real song played on our piano twice. The first time was right after it arrived. My parents hired a piano tuner to come and give it the once over. I watched with great interest as he lifted the lid and with a special crank and tuning fork proceed turn transform it from a tinny toy piano into a beautiful instrument. He sat down afterwards and played a short tune for me.

The second time took place on a visit to our house that my father’s sister, Aunt Julia, and her husband John paid us. John was a thin man with a pencil mustache, emphysema, and a gentle nature. They had met in New York and he had a Bronx accent, I think. When he saw the piano, he became nostalgic and said he had played piano in a speak-easy when he was a young man (maybe 30 or 40 years before the time this happened.) He sat down and started to play a piece that he said was a kind of honky-tonk song. It saddened me to watch his performance. His hands moved in a rhythmic way, it looked as if there was some purpose behind the keys he aimed at. But the result was unrecognizable as music. I marveled at how he could have forgotten. “Surely,” I thought, “it had to be like riding a bicycle. Once you learn, you never forget.”

The local music store ordered the Rachmaninov sheet music for me. I smirked at the cashier–a girl from my high school–when I paid for it. She didn’t say anything about the Prelude in C-sharp minor or my good taste in purchasing it, so I knew she was unfamiliar with it. “How could they hire someone to work in a music store, who didn’t know about Rachmaninov?” I asked my self.

It was easy to find a piano teacher. Almost every other girl in my school took piano lessons, and one of them, a cute little blonde named Jeanie, sat next to me in French class. I told her of my plan to play the prelude and asked if she could teach me. “I don’t know the piece,” but she said she’d look at the sheet music and then tell me. She seemed to avoid me for a while after that, and when I finally got a chance to ask her about it, she said: “I can’t teach you that. It’s too hard. I can’t even play it. You’d need to have studied piano for years.” I was crushed but fortunately didn’t become bitter about it, and continued to love Rachmaninov’s with just as much intensity for years.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

2 Responses to Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3 No.2

  1. kurtnemes says:

    Reblogged this on Kurt Nemes' Classical Music Almanac and commented:

    I discovered this piece in high school around 1972, and I fell in love with it, as described in my earlier post. I’m reblogging it today because a friend sent me a funny version of it on youtube. I hope you enjoy the comedic update as well as the astounding original.


  2. Gallivanta says:

    Very entertaining. I wondered if Rachmaninov would find either the video or your story as amusing as I did so I read a little about him. It seems his life was sad and difficult. I don’t get the feeling he was a laugher.


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