The massive theme occupies four staves in the second A section (The top two staves are both played by the right hand, the bottom two by the left).
Prelude in C-sharp minor (Russian: Прелюдия), Op. 3, No. 2, is one of Sergei Rachmaninoff's most famous compositions. It is a ternary (ABA) prelude for piano in C-sharp minor, 62 measures long, and part of a set of five pieces entitled Morceaux de fantaisie.
Its first performance was by the composer on September 20, 1892, at a festival called the Moscow Electrical Exhibition, which Rachmaninoff considered his debut as a pianist. After this première, a review of the concert singled out the Prelude, noting that it had “aroused enthusiasm”. From this point on, its popularity grew.
Rachmaninoff later published 23 more preludes to complete a set of 24 preludes covering all the major and minor keys, to emulate earlier sets by Bach, Chopin, Alkan, Scriabin and others.
This work was one of the first the 19‑year‑old Rachmaninoff composed as a "Free Artist", after he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory on 29 May 1892. He performed this new work for the first time at one of the concerts of the Moscow Electrical Exhibition on 8/20 October 1892. It was printed the following year as the second of five Morceaux de fantaisie (Op. 3), all dedicated to Anton Arensky, his harmony teacher at the Conservatory. Because at the time Russia was not party to the 1886 Berne Convention, Russian publishers did not pay royalties, so the only financial return he ever received for this piece was a 40 ruble (about two months' wage of a factory worker) publishing fee.
The prelude is organized into three main parts and a coda:
- The piece opens with a three note motif at fortissimo which introduces the grim C-sharp minor tonality that dominates the piece. The cadential motif repeats throughout. In the third measure, the volume changes to a piano pianissimo for the exposition of the theme.
- The second part is propulsive and marked Agitato (agitated), beginning with highly chromatic triplets. This passionately builds to interlocking chordal triplets that descend into a climactic recapitulation of the main theme, this time in four staves to accommodate the volume of notes. Certain chords in the section are marked with quadruple sforzando.
- The piece closes with a brief seven-measure coda which ends quietly.
The prelude became one of Rachmaninoff's most famous compositions. His cousin Alexander Siloti was instrumental in securing the Prelude's success throughout the Western world. In the autumn of 1898, he made a tour of Western Europe and the United States, with a program that contained the Prelude. Soon after, London publishers brought out several editions with titles such as The Burning of Moscow, The Day of Judgement, and The Moscow Waltz. America followed suit with other titles, such as The Bells of Moscow. It was so popular that it was referred to as "The Prelude" and audiences would demand it as an encore at his performances, shouting "C-sharp!"
Rachmaninoff recorded the piece both electrically and on Ampico piano rolls.
- In the Marx Brothers comedy, A Day at the Races, 1937, Harpo plays the C-sharp minor prelude with such energy, the piano explodes. He takes the harp out of the wreckage and begins to play that, instead.
- Ben Linus (Michael Emerson) is seen playing the C-sharp minor prelude in the episode "The Shape of Things to Come" from the fourth season of the TV series Lost.
- Paul Revere Dick, leader of Paul Revere & The Raiders, based his team's first chart single, the instrumental "Like, Long Hair," on this prelude.
- The prelude formed the basis for George L. Cobb's Russian Rag.
- In 1970 the Dutch rock/jazz band Ekseption recorded a song called "On Sunday They Will Kill The World" which is based on the C-sharp minor Prelude. The song was then covered by gothic/doom metal band Draconian.
- In 2000, the popular R&B group En Vogue sampled the piece in their recording "Love Won't Take Me Out" on their album Masterpiece Theatre.
- The French black metal band, Anorexia Nervosa, included a recording of the C-sharp minor Prelude (which they entitled 'Hail Tyranny') on their 2001 album, New Obscurantis Order.
- The movie Weekend at Bernie's used a (broken) playback of it, via stereo system for the incidental, soundtrack music.
- The prelude is an important element of the plot of Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn novel Overture to Death, written in 1939
- In the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Emily plays the opening of the Prelude.
- The Blackalicious song "The Rise and Fall of Elliot Brown" incorporates this prelude throughout the song.
- Mao Asada skated to this piece during her long program at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, earning a silver medal.
- On Mingus at the Bohemia, Charles Mingus recorded "All The Things You C♯", a blend of "All the Things You Are and the Prelude.
- In the television show Arthur, the main character Arthur bluffed to his music teacher that he could play the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C-sharp minor blindfolded. When asked to perform the Prelude, he told the teacher he couldn't without a blindfold.
- Canadian progressive metal band Protest the Hero recorded a song on their third album, Scurrilous, entitled "Sex Tapes", which has melodies based on Prelude in C-sharp minor.
- The Beastie Boys sampled Prelude in C-sharp minor in their 1998 song "Intergalactic".
- Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) plays a segment of this piece in the movie Limitless.
- In 1994, the theme melody of the action strategy game Dark Legions.
- In 2011, Jon Schmidt freely arranged the music for piano, drums, guitar and bass. Schmidt made a video of this work, titled Rock Meets Rachmaninoff and "inspired by Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C# minor," with the group ThePianoGuys and posted it on YouTube.
- Morceaux de fantaisie, Op. 3 (includes Prelude in C-sharp minor)
- Morceaux de salon, Op. 10
- Six moments musicaux, Op. 16
- Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op. 22
- 10 Preludes, Op. 23
- Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 28
- 13 Preludes, Op. 32
- Études-Tableaux, Op. 33
- Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 36
- Études-Tableaux, Op. 39
- Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42
- Polka de W.R.