In today’s video, we’re going to do a piano tutorial for Rachmaninoff’s Prelude op. 3 no. 2. It’s been eons since I’ve taken a difficult classical piece and simplified it – so it was high time!
This simplified arrangement is appropriate for early intermediate students, around grade 3/4. It covers roughly the first half of the prelude, before things get fast and crazy. The big chords from the intro have been pared down to single notes to make it playable for intermediate students. It’s a good way to get familiar with a tune years before being able to play the full version!
Here is the PDF to download for free.
In today’s video, we’re going to talk about the backstory of this piece, play through it, and talk practice points and details. Let’s get started!
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude op. 3 no. 2: Backstory
As we discussed in the Music of Rachmaninoff, this prelude is one of his most famous compositions. It’s found in his set of five piano pieces, Morceaux de fantaisie. It’s one of 24 preludes he wrote for the piano, in every major and minor key.
This prelude has the nickname “The Bells of Moscow” because of the bell-like first part, which is the part we’ll be learning today.
It was written when Rachmaninoff was only 19 years old, and grew to be so popular in Rachmaninoff’s lifetime that the audience would often demand hearing it as an encore, shouting “C sharp! C sharp!” And, like any artist with a very famous piece, he often wished he never wrote it.
Let’s play through it on piano, and then talk details.
Prelude op. 3 no. 2: Basics
With tutorials, we always start by looking at the basics. What key is this prelude in?
We have four sharps, quite a lot to keep track of. The major key with 4 sharps is E major, and the minor key with four sharps is C# minor. Which do you think this piece is in?
If you said C# minor, you would be correct. You can look at the beginning and end of the piece to see that they are both C# notes/chords.
When learning this piece, you might find it useful to learn the C# natural minor scale, to get used to the four different sharps used.
I would learn this one by starting first with the right hand, getting used to the notes. There are lots of accidentals to keep your eyes on.
Then I would add the upper left hand part. Notice how the left hand is split in two – you have lower notes with stems going down, and upper notes with stems going up. The upper notes follow the right hand melody, so we’ll start with those.
These notes are quite tricky – you’re going to have to read a ton of ledger lines. I personally wrote in a few letters for myself when I printed off the sheet music, because ain’t nobody got time for all those ledger lines.
There’s also something we never talked about on this channel before – double sharps. They look like x’s, and are exactly what they sound like – a note sharped twice. I won’t get into the music theory reasons these exist, but know that they do.
If you see and F double sharp, you’re going to be playing a G on the piano. One sharp would make it F#, a double sharp makes it G.
Once you can play the right hand and upper left hand parts together, it’s time to go in and add the lower left hand notes. These notes fill in the gaps and give us that dramatic bell sound.
There are lots of details to pay attention to here. First, most of the melody is marked with tenutos, which mean to hold the notes for their full value. It’s almost like an accent – you really want to dig into these notes and let them ring before moving on the next. This works because you’re also playing really slow (lento).
Next, we have some two-note slurs and breath marks. These slurs have a “leaning” feel to them – the first note leans into the next, almost like a sigh.
When my students play two-note slurs on the piano, I get the to think of the word “SIGH-ing”, because that’s how you want to play them. The first one has more weight than the second one, and then there’s a little lift before moving on to the next two-note slur.
The little apostrophe is a breath mark, and if you were singing this melody, it would mean to take a breath in that part. We can do that on the piano by having a little lift in the sound.
I haven’t mentioned pedal, and we won’t go into it too much, but I lightly pedal this piece using the syncopated pedal technique we’ve talked about on this channel.
Every time the harmony changes, I clear the sound – this is roughly twice a bar, but it depends on the bar.
Leaping left hand
By far the biggest challenge of this piece is the leaping left hand. Your left hand is constantly moving octaves, so this is a really good study piece for keyboard geography. Luckily it’s a slow piece, so you have lots of time and space to practice those big jumps.
Some of the left hand notes are marked with a staccato, but your pedaling will keep it from sounding really abrupt. These staccatos just mean you want to launch off the low notes quickly.
The dynamic markings in this piece are pretty sparse – you have some ppps, and an mf. I like to add a little crescendo leading into the mf, which is the pinnacle of the piece, and then a diminuendo on the way back to ppp.
I also like to add a little movement and rubato in the mf section, just to give our pinnacle a little extra oomph. Play around with expression here, and feel free to go outside of the box.
I hope you enjoyed this simplified tutorial on a very challenging (and awesome) piece. Sometimes it’s fun to make arrangements on popular tunes, instead of always playing everything the way it’s written.
Catch you next time!