Five études-tableaux

Just before Rachmaninov emigrated to America, he completed in September 1916, his final two large piano cycles, the 6 Romances op. 38 and the Nine Études-tableaux op. 39. Although written simultaneously, the two cycles have very different moods: while we can characterise the six Romances as being 'lyric miniatures', the Études-tableaux are rather disturbed, moody pieces. Contemporary critics judged that the artistic ambitions of these “piano dramas” exceeded the limitations of the concert grand piano. It is no surprise that the world famous Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who also emigrated to America, suggested to Rachmaninov fifteen years later (as principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra) that the Études should be turned into an orchestral version. He believed that the Italian Ottorino Respighi (himself a former pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov) was the ideal man for the job, not only because of expertise in orchestration, but also because of his profound knowledge of Russian music. Rachmaninov wrote to him on January 2nd 1930, asking him to make an orchestral version (although Respighi ultimately only orchestrated four of the nine studies), and gave the Italian some important instructions as to the inner programs of these enigmatic works. In its orchestral guise, the first movements is the Second study from the op. 39 set, which depicts seagulls hovering over an undulating sea. The second features “Little Red Riding Hood” (op. 39 no. 6). The third movement – which derives not from the op. 39 set but is the fourth from the op. 33 studies written five years earlier, is a musical description of a market scene. The Fourth (op. 39 no. 9) is an exotic Eastern march. The final tableau depicts a more complex sequence of events. It begins with another march, and then we hear choral music. The dense accompaniment in demi-semi quavers portrays rain and the dismal mood rain creates. At the tableau's climax we hear church bells, before the movement concludes with a recapitulation of the march.