The story below was originally published in Issue #33 of Little Patuxent Review in the winter of 2023.
The story goes that a nineteen-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff dreamt he saw a coffin in the corner of an open room. As one does when in a room with nothing but a sealed coffin, he encroached the wooden casket, dream-slow, magnetized. Of course, as if there ever was another possibility, the dreaming madman raised the wooden lid. Inside, this nineteen-year-old piano wonder-boy witnessed his own pale corpse, boxed in pinewood and satin.
Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp minor is that dream. Rather, it’s the part of the dream that he was able to pull from himself, an internationally celebrated opus written in the hand of a Russian teenager with spidery, spindly fingers. What must be acknowledged, however, is when something hits as hard as the sight of your own suited corpse, there’s no total extraction. Whatever was left of the dream, whatever residue the great composer couldn’t filter through the piano keys, he carried with him through the rest of his fifty-some years.
As for me, I never gave a constipated crap about Rachmaninoff.
At thirteen years old, my priorities were girls, sports and hip-hop— not that I exceled in any one of these endeavors. My parents, however, believed there was a checklist of activities that any dutiful guardian is tacitly obliged to force upon their wee dependents. Topping that list, elevated by baseball, Sunday school, and a rather lamentable foray in self-defense, were piano lessons.
At thirteen, I maintained little interest in music beyond the linguistic stylistics of Tupac Shakur and Jay-Z. When my piano teacher dragged me note by note through the Suzuki method, I resisted as I would an executioner’s walk to the gallows. Who could blame me, though? The piano had no style, and if I was keen on anything my parents had no claim to, it was style. My style was hip-hop, and I carefully wove the vernacular, the clothing, and the free-style verse to impart a most desperate impression that I was from anywhere else but the suburbs.
At home, my parents set an old-fashioned kitchen timer on the piano-top and spun the dial, sentencing me to twenty minutes each day at an instrument that I believed had been designed to breed revenge fantasies. On the piano bench, I began to experience time in a warped and uncomfortable fashion, the slowest I had known it in my meagre thirteen years, punctuated by my mother’s dampened footsteps at the far end of the house that signaled it was safe for me to spin the timer back to shave a minute from my daily sentence.
Gradually, it became evident to those around me that, like all in my bloodline who had tried to stoke their musical ability before me, I had no real future in Classical piano. For anyone who doubted this, there came a single point of proof— Rachmaninoff.
The last piece of music that my piano teacher tried to rake my fingers through was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor. This was my death knell— a piece far more titanic than my fledgling abilities, a piece that I conceptually did not understand, a piece I had no interest in discovering. After weeks of shadowing my teacher’s hands through alternating fingerings, trudging painfully through the opening triads, without a note of progress and with utter disdain for any music that neglected to feature Biggie Smalls or Eminem, my parents let me quit the piano. Upon this agreement, my father admitted that this very piece was the one that had led him to quit piano lessons when he was my age.
I bid good riddance to Rachmaninoff and cast away the piano.
While the years that followed may have ushered changes that were meaningful to me at the time, the truth is that my character evolved very little. I maintained simplistic interests— girls, sports, and a rigorous diet of hip-hop. It should be noted that my relative lack of success in each one of these stated endeavors continued.
Then, one day, lightning struck.
Rain walloped the windows, crashing in on our suburban home. The storm dashed out our electrical power. A boy without technology amid a lightning storm, in a moment of extreme exasperation, I could find no place else to occupy my bored, wandering mind. Thus, I turned to the piano.
With no sheet music before me, I excavated tunes from somewhere in my memory. My play was faulty, fragmented, but somewhere in the sound I sensed a melody. Time, once my enemy upon the piano bench, began to warp anew. Seconds turned to minutes turned to hours, and the piano mesmerized me with the depth of its allure. The storm passed, and to my parents’ disbelief, their son was sitting at the piano, captivated.
I played for five hours that day. With no timer set upon the piano-top, I played for countless hours each day of the following month. Intolerant of any teacher’s methods, resistant to instruction in my teenage adamance, I watched YouTube videos and transcribed guitar tabs. I practiced picking melodies by ear, creating for myself the sound I longed to listen to.
My love for hip-hop music led me to the classics that the genre pays homage to. I began to sing and play the keys in local cover bands. Soon, I was writing original songs. I learned jazz and blues, and I learned to fuse them into something I believed to be original.
Almost everything I played, including lyrics that I sang onstage, I improvised. It was as though the prescriptive nature of Classical music, the note-by-note medieval torture I endured as a thirteen-year-old faced with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, still haunted me. I resented any music that defied improvisation, convincing myself improvisation was the only form of music that could truly be lived.
Over fifteen years have passed since that suburban lightning storm, and I have played my piano almost every day. I’ve played jazz cafés, Bat Mitzvahs, Latinx parties, packed campus bars and executive outings. Music has become my native language. I have swapped souls in a joint collaboration with jam bands and funk bands and house music deejays. Through all of my improvised solos, however, through Elton John covers and rap verses plucked upon the piano, the ghost of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude has always been hovering over me.
Several times since that rainy afternoon, I have taken the sheet music out from a box in the closet. Every time I brought the pages out, I set the music on the stand and struggled through the build of the opening triads. Fumbling through fingerings that segue the grand motif, the triplets in the second part would always trick my fingers into silence. I’d stare at them, confused and frustrated, until I tucked the pages back inside their hidden box, knowing I was dooming myself to repeat this same meaningless routine at some despondent future date.
Somewhere in my mind, I understood that I was only despondent because I’d grown cocky. The Prelude was a healthy reality check. Despite their undoubtable technical abilities, I had always scoffed at purely Classical pianists. However, the truth is, for a Classical pianist, the Prelude is a mediocre challenge. My overwhelming mountain was a bunny hill to them.
Cutting deeper through this truth, I began to understand that my preaching the virtues of improvisation was no more than a defense mechanism for my lazy lack of patience. I promised to myself that no matter what patience the Prelude required of me, no matter what fingering exercises or how many different recordings I needed to listen to, I would interpret the Prelude and play the sheet music in time.
I began by adjusting the approach that had only brought me failure in the past. Instead of trying to swallow the piece in one gulp, I sliced the piece measure by measure. Abandoning my crutches of improvisation, I studied the movement of the piece, perfecting my fingering, building my technique, studying the world’s top performers on YouTube to ape their approach toward the Prelude. Many times, my fingers became too fatigued to keep pace with repeating the piece in my practice— many times, I left the piano bench in desperation, and my playing of the piece remained substandard.
I continued approaching each note with respect, with study and reverence, maintaining patience for the first time in my life until I reached the epic closing of the Prelude. Only when I surrendered my pride to the glory of the piece did I begin to understand how the Prelude in C Sharp minor progresses between three core sections for the player to interpret.
The first section, the ominous chords that challenge the pianist to alternate hand over hand, finds Rachmaninoff before the wooden casket. He has no control of his environs, no control over the circumstances that have placed him in this situation, yet he forges ahead in the only conceivable fashion that his situation seems it might allow for.
The second section, the frantic triplets scuttling across the keys like spider legs, depict the young composer called forth to the unknown before him. While he does not know the mystery that lays within the casket, he is bound by a will to uncover the truth.
The third section, building on the two parts before it, the grand crashing chords that resolve in Rachmaninoff’s discovery, present his devastation at revealing the identity of the deceased as himself.
For Rachmaninoff, the truth uncovered at the end of this piece is a haunting one— he understood then that a part of him was dead. Yet for me, as I press my fingers down into the keyboard to toll out that soft-somber opening chord, the truth that the Prelude unveils has rolled out a path to my quiet revival.