Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# Minor Opus 3 No 2 Note Count

Just how many notes are there in this piece?

January 2022:


Sergei Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# Minor Opus 3 No 2 is one of the most spectacular, clangorous, impressive, vulgar, noisy short pieces ever written for the piano. It is also one of, if not the, most popular and recognisable. Written in 1892 when Rachmaninoff was 18 he first performed it at the Moscow Electric Exhibition in September that year.

Despite its apparent and forbidding virtuostic requirements the prelude is, if not easy, surprisingly graspable. Although there are some huge leaps and the staff lines - and all those ledger lines - are almost blotted out with notes and accidentals, there are no fancy trills and no terrifyingly fast chromatic runs of interlocking minor thirds. It is within the grasp of an advanced amateur pianist: the prelude is probably at Grade 8 level. It's also great fun to (attempt) to play.

My sheet music copy is a sixty or more years old Lilac unattributed transcription by Regina Music, at 6d in old money. It appears to be taken from the first printed edition by publishers A. Gutheil of Moscow in 1893 (as that edition was not copyrighted worldwide) and has a few differences from the corrected subsequent editions. A few notes are missing (Rachmaninoff's error), the lovely D#'s in bars 5 and 48 are naturalised, and some of the large chords in the last section are arpeggiated instead of being leaps. I now play the later correct edition, easily available online at no cost.

The great advantage of the Lilac edition is that section three is written on two staves as is usual in piano sheet music. Most (all I have seen really) other editions use four staves in this section, which I find confusing. It isn't necessary.

Can I play it? Well, yes and no. I have memorised every note so that I don't need the sheet music apart from a few spot checks now and again. I learned the first section some forty years ago and I can play that reasonably well. At the time I was daunted by the fast second section so I stopped there. Recently I have tackled the remaining sections - my technique has improved over the years - and I can get through to the end, but hardly cleanly. Give me another few months and I'll be there.

The prelude is in the key of C# Minor, which has four sharps, and is 61.5 bars in length. It's in Common Time (4/4), although the pace of the quaver (half note) theme in section one is sonorous if you follow the opening crochet octaves at around five seconds per crochet: the triplet second section is frantic, and the quaver third section as fast as you can move your arms. The piece takes a professional pianist around 4.10 to 4.20 minutes to complete.

My curiosity turned to the number of notes in this piece. There's a lot of ink in the final section. On an idle evening I set up an Excel spreadsheet and counted them, left and right hand, in bars. Then I turned to the accidentals, and then I wished I hadn't started in the first place. Who cares about the accidentals? There is really little point to this, I hope I'm not the only one to be curious, but it'll never be a pub quiz question. If you want the answers they're right at the end.



There you are, 1,725 notes to memorise, and a hefty 400 plus accidentals to make it interesting. Although the number of notes should be consistant across all except the very first published edition the number of accidentals may vary. Some are double for each note, and some are 'reminders' which are really redundant. Bar 0, by the way, is the first half-bar two descending octave crochets. I have not counted tied notes.

What does this tell us? The highest number of notes is in bars 49 and 50, at 64 notes. Highest accidentals is at bar 46, at 29 accidentals. Only one bar, 43, has no accidentals (apart from the opening and closing bars). And the top prize for complexity goes to bar 51, with 60 notes and 28 accidentals. Get practising.

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