Oct 20, 2005

The Russian Rag!

Today I've learned about one of the funniest musical pieces ever.. The Russian Rag.

George Cobb, a composer from the beginning of the century, claimed that he can turn any piece of music into Ragtime style (which is famous for syncopated off-beat rhythms). While sitting in a famous restaurant in New York in 1918 (Jade?), a friend of his challenged him to turn Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-minor to ragtime. George didn't think long. He got up, went to the piano, and played what became known as the "Russian Rag". Unknown to him, Rachmaninoff was in the restaurant at the time. He walked slowly towards the piano. As Cobb finished playing, he turned around to see Rachmaninoff standing right in front of him. Cobb almost had a heart attack, as Rachmaninoff said "nice melody, but the rhythm is all wrong" :-)

The Music:
Listen to the original Rachmaninoff's Prelude in C-minor here
Listen to George Cobb's Russian Rag here

(I'm still looking for a midi of the New Russian Rag. Please let me know if you find it.)

I found another attempt to rag'ize the prelude here. But it's not as good.

I've just started learning about Jazz music. (The course starts with an intro to Ragtime & Blues). This is turning into a very interesting experiment. I didn't think that Jazz is this much fun.


  1. The minor-key parts of this piece were often used by Benny Hill, to underscore his comedy sketches.

    Listening to it conjures up visions of Benny and his cohorts trying to deliver an urgent message from King Charles I, or trying to rescue a lady on her way to the Bastille, or any number of silly routines.

  2. This is an interesting (and humorous) story,
    where did you get it?

    Given the rich of musical sophistication of "Russian Rag", and the fact that there is so little of Rachmaninoff Prelude actually in it (not to mention that it is in a totally different key), I think it is highly unlikely that Cobb could have tossed this rag off as an improvisation. However, it does make for a good story.

    By the way, Rachmaninoff's original Prelude is in C# minor (four sharps), NOT C minor (three flats).

    Some of his other rags, such as "Feedin' the Kitty" and "Procrastination Rag" are less musically sophisticated and could very well have been written in one sitting, but "Russian Rag" sounds like he spent a long time working on it to get the melodies, harmonies, and voicings just so. Just take a look at the score (available from the link at the bottom)

    In fact, a great deal of Cobb's music shows great inspiration, creativity, and distinction, even while working within popular musical styles of the day (such as the song, the waltz, the march, the fox-trot, the novelette, etc.).

    He is the favorite ragtime composer of pianist Frederick Hodges, and Hodges has recorded a number of his compositions (including a fantastic re-arrangement of "Russian Rag" that has to be heard to be believed):



    http://www.jazzbymail.com/ViewArtist.aspx?iAID=1056&sAN=Frederick Hodges

    You will notice, by comparing with the original Prelude, that most of the musical material in "Russian Rag" is, in fact, original and probably written by Cobb himself.

    I have the score to "New Russian Rag" should you desire it.

    You can contact me on Youtube at:


    Since it is from 1923, it is still under copyright (almost everything copyrighted 1923 and later is still under copyright). New Russian Rag uses more of the Prelude than the original "Russian Rag" and is also very tricky to play, which is why it is rarely performed or recorded.

    Almost everything Cobb ever wrote can be found listed here on this site, and most pre-1923 (public domain) compositions can be printed out for free:


  3. Thanks much Andrew for the elaborate comment. This story was narrated in the Jazz class I listened to (Elements of Jazz from Cakewalk to Fusion - http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/CourseDescLong2.aspx?cid=728).

    AND, it's on wikipedia :-)

    While I agree that the story might be an urban legend, I highly hear the relationship between the melodies in each. Even if the keys are different - the tunes sound very similar.

    and I agree - it's very unlikely that he composed this in one sitting.

    thanks a lot for the very nice links. I'll check them out and I'll try to get the score for the new russian rag.

  4. Hi Muhammad,

    You're welcome! No problem.

    Yes, part of "Russian Rag" is definitely based upon the Rachmaninoff prelude (it even says so on the original sheet music), but in no way is the entire piece just a ragged version of the Prelude in the way that, for example, Cobb's "Peter Gink" is a ragged version of "Anitra's Dance" and others from Greig's "Peer Gynt" suite.

    I have asked some ragtime friends as to the origin of the story about Cobb and Rachmaninoff, and I will let you know if they ever discover where it came from (or, how true it is).

    In the meantime, here is a PDF of the sheet music to "New Russian Rag". Please don't spread it around too much.


    As you can see, "New Russian Rag" not only uses more of the Prelude than the original "Russian Rag", but also can be considered a more sophisticated variation of the original "Russian Rag", where Cobb also reworks his own original musical material.

    This is similar to how Scott Joplin reworked "Maple Leaf Rag" into "Gladiolus Rag", except in this case, the melody and most harmonies are largely the same as the original, and it is in a different key.

  5. thanks a bunch Andrew.

    I got the PDF, and I see you have a very nice collection of music & scores on your files account.

    the link you sent me is on the internet :-) so if you don't want many to download the score, I can hide the link in your comment. Just let me know.