The Kennedy Center

Études-tableaux (orchestrated by Respighi)

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Richard Freed

The legendary conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), remembered for his 25-year tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1924-1949), was not himself a transcriber of piano pieces, but he brought a number of stunning ones into being. The most celebrated of these is Ravel's orchestral version of Mussorgsky's suite Pictures at an Exhibition, which Koussevitzky commissioned and introduced in Paris in 1922. In the same year, he introduced Ravel's transcriptions of two pieces by Debussy: the early Danse (originally called Tarantelle styrienne) and the Sarabande from the suite Pour le piano. Once in Boston, Koussevitzky invited Ottorino Respighi to conduct his orchestra in 1927, and chose him as was one of the several composers he commissioned for new works in celebration of the orchestra's fiftieth anniversary, in 1931. At about the same time he issued the commission for Respighi's Metamorphoseon, in 1929, Koussevitzky approached Rachmaninoff on the idea of having Respighi orchestrate several of the Russian's pianistically demanding Etudes-tableaux, the specific pieces to be chosen by Rachmaninoff himself.

Respighi, who showed a mastery of the resources of the modern orchestra comparable to Ravel's in such works as The Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, was particularly admired for his arrangements of earlier music, such as the scintillating treatment of songs and piano pieces by Rossini to create the score for the ballet La Boutique fantasque; his suite of lesser-known Rossini pieces called Rossiniana; the tasteful collections of early keyboard and lute music to form his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances and the one he called The Birds; and the transcription of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue for Arturo Toscanini. Rachmaninoff was of course aware of all this, and he responded with unreserved enthusiasm to both Koussevitzky and Respighi.

Rachmaninoff had composed his two sets of Etudes-tableaux--a total of seventeen pieces, of which six were published as Op. 33 and nine as Op. 39--between 1911 and 1917. The title may be translated as "Scenic Etudes," or "Pictures in the form of Etudes." Rachmaninoff was secretive regarding the specific imagery reflected in these pieces, fending off questions with the remark that the listener ought not to be overly concerned, or might simply accept whatever pictures the music might suggest. To Respighi, however, he volunteered "secret explanations" of the "programs" for the five pieces he chose for transcription, and he supplied the descriptive titles for them himself in laying out his proposed sequence. He happily accepted the somewhat different sequence which Respighi published as his own Op. 160:
  1. Op. 39, No. 2, "The Sea and the Seagulls"
  2. Op. 33, No. 7, "The Fair"
  3. Op. 39, No. 7, "Funeral March"
  4. Op. 33, No. 6, "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf"
  5. Op. 39, No. 9, March

This little suite was introduced by Koussevitzky in Boston in November 13, 1931, a week after the premiere of the Metamorphoseon. The enterprising Frederick Stock conducted it in Chicago only two months later, in concerts in which Rachmaninoff performed as soloist in his Third Concerto, but it has turned up seldom since then. Hans Graf has chosen three of these five pieces, and is performing them in the order V, I, II. Rachmaninoff described the March, which concludes the set when it is performed intact, as having an Oriental character. The "program" for "The Sea and the Seagulls," he told Respighi, had been "suggested by Mme Rachmaninoff"; in this piece we are reminded of the composer's lifelong obsession with the Dies irae, the ancient chant for the dead, whose motif is cited outright or strongly alluded to in virtually all of his major works. Finally, "The Fair" is a bustling Russian village scene.