(And of course Alkan’s Op.31 included 24 in all the major and minor keys, plus an additional 25th prelude in C major; while Scriabin’s Op.11 was a set of 24 Preludes written over the course of 8 years, and in fact, modelled after Chopin’s Op.28 and followed the same key sequence, even if Scriabin composed 85 Preludes in all through his life).
Mention “Preludes” to a pianist and perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues to which many pianists have a love-hate relationship – Bach wrote 2 sets of 24 that begin with a Prelude C major followed by a Fugue in C major, and then a Prelude in C minor followed by a C minor Fugue, all of them seem easier than they are really are.
This idea of writing 24 pieces that cover all the major and minor keys has continued after Bach.
A favourite of pianists, and often performed in one sitting, Chopin’s Op.28 Preludes (no fugues) was also a set of 24, covering each tonality, but Chopin chose the duality of the harmonic series of 5ths: his set of 24 begins with C major followed by the relative minor in A, then to G major followed by its relative minor in E, then ending therefore with D minor.
The Russian composer Shostakovich was perhaps more directly inspired by Bach, with his Op 87 a set of 24 preludes and fugues that include references to and quotations from Bach’s cycle appearing throughout. The first prelude, the C major, begins with exactly the same notes as that Bach used in his own C major prelude, BWV 846, which likewise begins the cycle. Shostakovich’s second fugue utilises an opening rhythm for the fugue subject that is very similar to Bach’s (two 16th notes followed by three 8th notes, twice in a row), although Shostakovich’s second fugue is in A minor and Bach’s in C minor. Like Chopin, though, the tonal sequence of the overall set of 24 followed the harmonic series of 5ths.
And then there’s that other Russian, the full-hearted Romantic, Rachmaninoff. Of all the composers who wrote sets of 24 pieces in all the keys, Rachmaninoff seems to be the only one who did not originally set out with such a goal in mind. His 24 Preludes were written and published at different times, not as a unified set. The “24” consists of a single Prelude in C♯ minor, in Op.3, the 10 Preludes in Op. 23, and 13 Preludes in his Op. 32. He also wrote three other individual preludes.
His Prelude in C♯ minor, still ever-popular, had quickly become a signature piece, and he had written the 11 Preludes that made up the Op.23 in the early 1900s, just as he had finished his Piano Concerto no 2. There was no special ordering of the keys in Rachmaninoff’s Op.23 although the pieces were all in different keys; by 1910 though, as he came to compose the 13 Preludes of his Op.32, he had definitely decided to complete the set of 24, with Op. 32 covering the remaining 13 keys. Rachmaninoff’s Preludes are longer in length than the Chopin Preludes, they are very much about the poetry of heroic struggle and longing and typically require both athleticism and poetry, and were written to take advantage of the orchestral scope of a concert grand piano; with the composer himself never performing more than four preludes in any single concert, they are seldom performed in one sitting at a concert.
The most famous of them all is perhaps the first, the Op.3, no.2, in C sharp minor (here is Ashkenazy’s memorable and breathtaking performance), composed when Rachmaninoff was 19 years old and became well-known internationally (audiences are known to refuse to let Rachmaninoff leave without performing the piece as an encore) and which showcases so well his gift for deriving maximum effect from minimum substance that has proven irresistible to audiences, while the Op.32, no 10, in B minor, is a favourite of many virtuoso pianists (here with the luminescent Volodos, and here with a defining Richter rendition filled with nobility, while there is a lovely and more recent and “live from Berlin” version from Yuja too); for us, we cannot stop hearing the Op.23, no.4, in D major, perhaps the most lyrical of them all that has been called a “Schumannesque song without words” (here is again a definitive version by Richter and here in a rare Neuhaus recording). Here is a quintessential and perfect Rachmaninoff experience, with all its emotional tussles in the lyricism that is translucent and romantic at the same time.