Rachmaninov’s Suite No. 1 “Fantaisie-tableaux”: Vivid Musical Pictures

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Fantaisie Tableaux for two pianos, better known as Suite No. 1, Op. 5, was conceived as “a series of musical pictures.”

The piece is made up of four vivid and magical soundscapes, each loosely inspired by a poem. It’s music of the young Rachmaninov, written in the summer of 1893, a year after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory. The score was dedicated to Tchaikovsky, who offered the young composer support. Following Tchaikovsky’s death in October, 1893, Rachmaninov wrote the haunting Trio élégiaque No. 2 in D minor, a piece we explored in a recent post.

The influence of Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers can be heard throughout the Fantaisie Tableaux in a way that is more pronounced than in later works. At the same time, this piece is filled with the sensuous, heart-wrenching melodies and harmonic turns we have come to associate with Rachmaninov’s later works.

The first movement (Barcarolle) suggests gently lapping water and the melancholy voyage of the gondolier through a mysterious nocturnal dreamscape. It was inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s poem of the same name. The wide range of the two pianos suggest an almost symphonic sense of color. Bright, glistening splashes of light glint off the highest notes.

The second movement, La nuit…L’amour… (“The Night…the love”) moves deeper into the night. In the opening bars, the song of a nightingale emerges, expressed in the interval of a falling major third. Mysterious and sensuous, cascades of chromaticism build to an ecstatic climax. The music was inspired by an excerpt from Lord Byron’s Parisina.

In the opening of the lamenting third movement, Les larmes (“Tears”), based on a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, we hear the musical equivalent of flowing teardrops. Expansive harmonic vistas open up, yet the final bars bring a gloomy, despairing march that might remind you of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique” Symphony.

The final movement, Pâques (“Easter”), erupts with the joyful celebration of a Russian Orthodox Easter morning. The mighty, clanging sound of Russian bells accompanies a Russian liturgical chant. As with the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunovharmony feels suspended in midair. Aleksey Khomyakov’s poem, “Easter,” captures the atmosphere:

Across the earth a mighty bell is ringing
Until all the booming air rocks like the sea
As silver thunderings sing forth the tidings
Exulting in that holy victory…

Here is a recording featuring Vadim Rudenko (Piano 1) and Nikolai Lugansky (Piano 2):

Recordings

  • Rachmaninov: Suite No. 1, Op. 5 (Fantaisie Tableaux), Vadim Rudenko, Nikolai Lugansky prestomusic.com

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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