Sergei Rachmaninov

Symphonic Dances, Opus 45


By the turn of the 20th century, Russian music had become a mature art. The works of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky and Borodin, having been played at home and abroad, established a national character and tradition that those masters wanted to see passed on to succeeding generations.  The most important Russian musical torchbearer of the two decades after 1900, the time between the deaths of Tchaikovsky and his contemporaries and the rise of the modern school of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, was Alexander Glazunov.

Quiz yourself on facts about Rachmaninov

Major Works of Rachmaninov


Aleko    (1892)

The Miserly Knight  (1905)

Francesca da Rimini (1905)


The Bells  (1913)

Vespers  (1915)

Three Russian Songs for Chorus and Orchestra  (1926)


The Rock, Fantasy for Orchestra (1893)

Symphony no. 1  (1895)

Symphony no. 2  (1907)

The Isle of the Dead  (1909)

Symphony no. 3  (1935)

Symphonic Dances  (1940)


Piano Concerto no. 1  (1891)

Piano Concerto no. 2  (1901)

Piano Concerto no. 3  (1909)

Piano Concerto no. 4  (1926)

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934)


Trio elegiaque  (1893)

Sonata for Cello and Piano  (1901)


5 Morceaux de fantasie   (1892)

7 Morceaux de salon  (1894)

6 Moments Musicaux  (1896)

10 Preludes (1903)

Piano Sonata no. 1  (1907)

13 Preludes  (1910)

Etudes-tableaux  (1911)

Piano Sonata no. 2  (1913)

Etudes-tableaux  (1917)

Performance History

Works by Sergei Rachmaninov 

Rachmaninov is a composer that is performed quite frequently at CYS: 12 separate occasions in the last 17 years!  The works performed include:

Piano Concerto no. 1  
Piano Concerto no. 2  
Piano Concerto no. 3  
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Symphony no. 3
Symphonic Dances

On the Maestro’s wish list:

Isle of the Dead  

Symphony no. 2   

The Bells  (need a chorus)

Rachmaninov Video Links

Rachmaninov Had Big Hands

We of course must begin with the hilarious video of “Rachmaninov Had Big Hands”, always one of my favorites!

Andre Previn rehearses Symphonic Dances

Here is a very interesting video of the famous conductor Andre Previn rehearsing a British orchestra of young musicians who are playing Symphonic Dances. He has some interesting things to suggest to the players: do you agree with him on his points?

Symphony No. 2 (second movement)

Here is a brilliant video of the second movement of Rachmaninov’s popular Symphony No. 2, completed in 1907.  The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest  from the Netherlands is conducted by Eivind Jensen. As in many works by Rachmaninov, the Dies Irae plainchant is referenced from the outset by the initial horn section melody. Rachmaninov alternates the fast-moving energetic opening theme with his typically lush, bittersweet and ultra-romantic melodic themes.

Symphonic Dances (movement 3)

A very fine performance of the third movement of Symphonic Dances, with the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest from the Netherlands. A very energetic and rhythmically vigorous performance from the world-famous Concertgebouw Concert Hall in Amsterdam. The Conductor is Edward Gardner, Principal Conductor of the London Philharmonic.

Etude-tableaux in Eb Minor for Piano

As we all know, Rachmaninov was possibly the greatest pianist of the 20th century, and maybe even of all time (excluding Liszt).  My mother, who was a professional pianist, often told me of the two greatest concerts she ever heard in her life (and she heard every major pianist alive between 1930-1980), and those were concerts given by George Gershwin (in his last year of life), and Sergei Rachmaninov. My mother’s favorite composer was Rachmaninov, so I grew up hearing virtually every piano work by the composer.  This Etude was her particular favorite.  Rachmaninov had GIGANTIC hands, and his piano writing is stupendously difficult.  I have always loved the drama of this particular piece.  Super-romantic! The pianist is Nikolai Lugansky.

Isle of the Dead

In 1906 Rachmaninov began searching for a theme for a symphonic poem that he was interested in tackling. After a two-year search, he came upon a black and white reproduction of a painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin titled “The Isle of the Dead”. You can find a reproduction of the original painting in the RACHMANINOV PHOTO ALBUM section of this website. As always, and perhaps even more so here, Rachmaninov makes extensive use of the Dies Irae theme. This is an extremely lugubrious work with many references to the painting, such as the opening 5/8 meter the suggests either the oars being pulled or the waves on the water as the boat approaches the Isle of the Dead.

Piano Concerto No. 3 WITH CYS 

A brilliant performance of the Piano Concerto No. 3 (an excerpt from the third movement here), with Misha Galant as soloist in November 2015 at the Flint Center in Cupertino. Misha also joined CYS on tour to Italy in 2016, playing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. GO CYS!

Prelude Opus 3 No. 2 in C# Minor

Rachmaninov’s most famous work (by far!) and his most-often-performed piece of music. The Prelude is actually one of a set of five piano pieces titled Morceaux de fantaisie that were composed in 1892 when the composer was just 19 years old. The C# Minor Prelude is also known as The Bells of Moscow since the introduction seems to reproduce the Kremlin's most solemn carillon chimes. The work is only 62 measures long, but it was an instant “hit” at the first performance (with the composer at the piano, of course) on September 26, 1892. It has entranced audiences ever since and continues to do so.

Sonata for Cello and Piano

Rachmaninov composed very little chamber music—only two works! The Trio elegiaque of 1893 was composed as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, who died in that year. His only other chamber work is his Sonata for Cello and Piano, completed in 1901— the same year as the wildly popular Piano Concerto No. 2. The slow movement offered here is a wonderful example at Rachmaninov at his most lyrical and moving, and is one of my particular favorites of the composer. A mesmerizing performance be cellist superstar Gautier Capuçon and pianist Nikolai Lugansky.

The Rock, Opus 7

Here is something that you don’t hear very often at all—Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Poem The Rock, composed at the age of 20 in 1893 and dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov. The composition was inspired by a Lermontov poem that has the following couplet:

The golden cloud slept through the night

Upon the breast of the giant-rock

Rachmaninov performed the work at the piano for Tchaikovsky, whom Rachmaninov revered, and the composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov recounted the event: “At the close of the evening [Rachmaninoff] acquainted us with the newly completed symphonic poem, The Rock. The poem pleased all very much, especially Pyotr Ilyich [Tchaikovsky], who was enthusiastic over its colorfulness. The performance of The Rock and our discussion of it must have diverted Pyotr Ilyich, for his former good-hearted mood came back to him.” I find it an underrated work that, even at this early stage in the composer’s career, has all of those qualities that we appreciate and love in the mature Rachmaninov—lush harmonies, unforgettable melodies, a bittersweet quality, and superb orchestration (thank you, Rimsky-Korsakov!).

Rachmaninov plays Rachmaninov

It would be a shame to end this series of videos without a performance of Rachmaninov BY Rachmaninov, so I include here the ending of his fabulous Rhapsody on a Theme By Paganini, played by the composer with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski (Variations 20-24). You might be surprised at the tempos: Rachmaninov liked to take fast tempos, and disliked many pianists who played his works too slowly!