Its first performance was by the composer on 26 September 1892, at a festival called the Moscow Electrical Exhibition. 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.
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 26 September 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 bar, 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-bar 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!"
The third and fourth measures are used in the song "Face the Flames" from the 1998 album "The Antidote" by The Wiseguys.
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.
The science fiction novel Hyperion (Simmons novel) by Dan Simmons opens with one of the main characters playing the prelude.
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.
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.