As we know, the Prelude was composed first, so the remaining pieces had to be ‘placed’ around it. One of Rachmaninov’s close friends at that time, the tenor Mikhail Slonov, suggested the title ’Polichinelle’ for what became the fourth piece. As mentioned earlier, it was Rachmaninov’s intention to compose a set of four pieces, but he added a fifth on reading an interview which Tchaikovsky had given to a newspaper critic in November 1892, when he said he felt he had to give younger talents a chance, and mentioned Glazunov, Arensky and Rachmaninov as the most outstanding of the younger school. Rachmaninov was so thrilled; as he said at the time, ‘I sat down at the piano and composed a fifth piece (the Serenade). So now I’ll publish five pieces.’
Rachmaninov premiered the complete Morceaux de Fantaisie in Kharkov on December 27th, and two months later to the day he gave Tchaikovsky one of the first copies of the newly-published set. A week later, Tchaikovsky wrote to Siloti saying how impressed he had been with them, especially the Prelude and the Mélodie. In the event, the Prelude proved a double-edged success. On the one hand, it soon travelled throughout the world (in the 1920s in New York, Rachmaninov heard the Paul Whiteman Band play a jazz version, which he much enjoyed, and had a similar experience in a London restaurant). It spread the fame of the young composer in such a way that by the time he was in his early twenties his name was known to a large international public. On the other hand the very popularity of the work came to curse him later in life, when he became a touring virtuoso: audiences would not let him leave without playing the piece as an encore. Furthermore, in 1893 Russia was not a signatory to any international copyright agreement, so all Rachmaninov ever received for a piece that was played and broadcast millions of times during his life was the forty roubles Gutheil paid for it (he gave two hundred roubles for the five pieces), and the royalties from his subsequent recordings of it. Towards the end of his life Rachmaninov revised three of the five pieces: in 1938 he made a transcription for two pianos of the Prelude, and in 1940 completely revised the Mélodie and Serenade.
from notes by Robert Matthew-Walker © 1983
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