Étude-Tableau in B minor, Op 39, No. 4
Unlike Chopin, who composed the 24 Pre- ludes of his Op. 28 (1838) in one fell swoop, Rachmaninoff took 18 years to bring his 24 Preludes – in two sets of 10 Preludes Op. 23 (1903) and 13 Preludes Op. 32 (1911), and one in isolation – to completion. It is unlikely that he had any inkling that a project of such scope would take shape when he published the ever-popular Prelude in C-sharp minor as part of Morceaux de Fantasie, Op. 3 in 1893, the work which brought immediate success to the then-19-year-old composer. Chopin’s Op. 28 may have been his inspira- tion and model, and though he incorporates every major and minor key (though in a seemingly unsystematic order), still Rach- maninoff distinguished his Preludes from his esteemed predecessor by increasing their length into large character pieces.
Rachmaninoff composed his Études-Tableaux (picture etudes), Op. 39 (1916-1917) during a period of intense study of the works of his friend Alexander Scriabin, as part of his performance contribution to a memorial recital for the late composer; they were the last works he composed in Russia. In these pieces, Rachmaninoff’s style took on a more jagged melodic profile and his use of harmonic dissonance is much more pronounced than in his prior music. As to the Tableaux aspect of these etudes, Rachmaninoff stated: “I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of his images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests.”
In both the Preludes and Etudes, Rach- maninoff is extremely economical in his use of materials based on melodic cells that he builds into multi-sectional structures. The nocturne-like character of Prelude
Op. 23, No. 4 presents a sustained melody that becomes increasingly varied but always present. Etude in B minor, Op. 39, No. 4 is primarily a study in staccato chords con- trasted with legato and staccato melodic ar- ticulations. Prelude in E minor, Op. 32, No. 4, the longest and most complex of the group, is based on a repeated octave that rises a step at a time and a scalar motive accompa- nied by staccato chords. Prelude in B minor, Op. 32, No. 10 begins as a siciliano pattern that gives way to an emotional middle sec- tion. In the Prelude in G minor, Op. 23, No. 5 a driving Alla Marcia finds relief in a lyrical second group. Etude in E-flat minor, Op. 39, No. 5, opens with an impassioned theme supported by driving triplet chords followed by a middle section featuring a plaintive melody accompanied by arpeggios that also function as a melodic counterpoint.