The Études-Tableaux (“study pictures”), Op. 33, is the first of two sets of piano études composed by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
They were intended to be “picture pieces”, essentially “musical
evocations of external visual stimuli”. But Rachmaninoff did not
disclose what inspired each one, stating: “I do not believe in the
artist that discloses too much of his images. Let [the listener] paint
for themselves what it most suggests.” However, he willingly shared sources for a few of these études with the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi when Respighi orchestrated them in 1930.
Rachmaninoff composed the Op. 33 Études-Tableaux at his Ivanovka estate in Tambov, Russia between August and September 1911, the year after completing his second set of preludes, Op. 32. While the Op. 33 Études-Tableaux
share some stylistic points with the preludes, they are actually not
very similar. Rachmaninoff concentrates on establishing well-defined
moods and developing musical themes in the preludes. There is also an
academic facet to the preludes, as he wrote 24 of them, one in each of
the 24 major and minor keys.
Rachmaninoff biographer Max Harrison calls the Études-Tableaux
“studies in [musical] composition”; while they explore a variety of
themes, they “investigate the transformation of rather specific climates
of feeling via piano textures and sonorities. They are thus less
predictable than the preludes and compositionally mark an advance” in
initially wrote nine pieces for Op. 33 but published only six in 1914.
One étude, in A minor, was subsequently revised and used in the Op. 39 set;
the other two appeared posthumously and are now usually played with the
other six. Performing these eight études together could be considered
to run against the composer’s intent, as the six originally published
are unified through “melodic-cellular connections” in much the same way
as in Robert Schumann‘s Symphonic Studies.
from the simplicity of the first four études, Nos. 5–8 are more
virtuosic in their approach to keyboard writing, calling for
unconventional hand positions, wide leaps for the fingers and
considerable technical strength from the performer. Also, “the
individual mood and passionate character of each piece” pose musical
problems that preclude performance by those lacking strong physical
Rachmaninoff wrote nine études-tableaux at his Ivanovka estate in 1911. Six of them, the original Nos. 1–2 and 6–9, were published that year. The original No. 4 is lost; the piece was revised and published as Op. 39, No. 6. The original Nos. 3 and 5 were published posthumously within Op. 33. Probably best identified by their tempo markings and keys, the 1911 pieces are numbered by the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) as follows, leaving aside the piece that is now part of Op. 39:
- Allegro non troppo in F minor — No. 1
This study has a martial character. Rachmaninov adored the music of Frédéric Chopin, and there are often parallels between the music of the two composers. This study recalls the Étude Op. 25, No. 4 of Chopin.
- Allegro in C major — No. 2
This study is characterized by a marked lyricism and a very expressive melody. Notice the similarity to Rachmaninoff’s Prelude op. 32 no. 12, which was composed the year before, in 1910.
- Grave in C minor — No. 3 (published posthumously)
This study was re-used in the Largo of Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto, which was completed in 1926.
- Moderato in D minor — No. 4 (published posthumously, originally No. 5)
This study is similar to the Prelude op. 23 No. 3 composed by Rachmaninoff in 1903, both in tone and character.
- Non allegro—Presto in E-flat minor — No. 5 (published as No. 3, originally No. 6)
study ranks among the most difficult of the opus, to play. The right
hand runs constantly throughout the whole keyboard with numerous octave
leaps and chromatic scales. Note some similarity to the Prelude op. 28 No. 16 and the Op. Study 25 No. 6 by Chopin. In Russia, this piece is nicknamed The Snow Storm.
- Allegro con fuoco in E-flat major — No. 6 (published as No. 4, originally No. 7)
This study has primarily a military aspect. The study concludes with a particularly virtuosic coda.
- Moderato in G minor — No. 7 (published as No. 5, originally No. 8)
This study parallels the finale of the First Ballade in G minor by Chopin.
- Grave in C-sharp minor — No. 8 (published as No. 6, originally No. 9)
This study was one of the three in this opus that were famously recorded in the Melodiya studios by Sviatoslav Richter, the other two being Moderato in D minor and Non allegro—Presto in E-flat minor.