Sergei Rachmaninoff

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Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Study of Études-Tableaux Op.33
Mike Mayrand
Music of the Early Twentieth Century MUS 244
Prof. F. Gaudette
April 14, 2006

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born April 1st, 1873 in Semyonovo, Russia and can be classified as a Russian-American composer, pianist and conductor. While his reputation as a composer only came later in life, Rachmaninoff's skill as pianist was well-known and highly respected. He was one of the greatest pianists of his generation, having legendary technical facilities and rhythmic drive, and his large hands were able to cover a thirteenth interval on the piano (a distance requiring a hand span of approximately twelve inches) (Wikipedia, 2006). Like most artists, Rachmaninoff endured periods of extreme mental depression and also had to suffer the strain of leaving his own native country in which he emigrated to American at the height of his fame, due to the Russian Revolution of 1917. His life was one of comparative stability in the history of Russian and American music. In him, there were none of the emotional complexities of Tchaikovsky or Scriabin, yet there were contradictions of his personality. Audiences, who observed him for the first time, were amazed to see that such a cool outward appearance could conceal the warmth of feeling of his piano playing. It was only in his music, both as a pianist and composer, that he was able to release his inner emotions (Norris, 1976). It is with this inner passion, that Rachmaninoff was able to create an abundant amount of imaginative and innovative music.

Rachmaninoff's style is fundamentally Russian. His music shows the influence of the idol of his youth, Tchaikovsky. However, his harmonic language expanded above and beyond that of Tchaikovsky. Rachmaninoff's frequently used motifs include the Dies Irae, often just the fragments of the first phrase. This is especially prevalent in The Bells, The Isle of the Dead, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the First and Second Symphonies. Another important idea was Rachmaninoff’s use of bell-like sounds. This occurs in many pieces, most notably in the cantata The Bells, the Second Piano Concerto, and the B minor prelude. He was also fond of Russian Orthodox chants. He uses them in his Vespers, but many of his melodies found their origins in these chants. The opening melodies of the First Symphony is derived from chants. In his scherzo-like movements, Rachmaninoff often implied a modified rondo form, usually opening with a light, swift rhythmical idea, then supplying a breath of fresh air in the form of a beautifully romantic melody, to then end the piece in a similar scherzo-fashion. Examples may be found in the last movement of the Second Concerto, the scherzo of the Cello Sonata, and the scherzo of the Second Symphony. He also frequently employed the fugue as a developmental device (Wikipedia, 2006).

The summer of 1911 was extremely strenuous and fatiguing for Rachmaninoff. Besides tiredness, he had become unforgivably forgetful, questioning himself as to why he could forget so many things in one day. Despite these difficulties, in which he claimed to have suffered while composing his recent preludes (Op. 32), he was able to complete a final draft of nine piano pieces called Opus 33 during the months of August and September 1911, and he premiered them in December 1911 (Martyn, 1990). Of the nine pieces composed, only six were originally published under Opus 33. The fourth in A minor was withdrawn from the set, revised, and became part of Opus 39. What we now know as études three and five, were published after his death, resulting in a final version that presents eight Études-Tableaux from Opus. 33 (Glover, 2003).

Some of Rachmaninoff’s previous compositions had hinted towards a pictorial inspiration, and his new creation was no different. Titled Études-Tableaux – “study-pictures” – this apparent Rachmaninoff coinage seemed to fit the description of Opus 33...
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