These sets were supposed to be "picture pieces", essentially "musical evocations of external visual stimulae". Rachmaninoff did not disclose what inspired each piece, stating, "I don't believe in the artist that discloses too much of his images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests."  However, he willingly shared sources for a few of these études with Italian composer Ottorino Respighi when Respighi orchestrated them in 1930.
Rachmaninoff composed the Op. 33 Études-tableaux at the Ivanovka estate 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 very unlike them. Rachmaninoff concentrates in the preludes on establishing well-defined moods and developing musical themes. 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 technique. Like the piano études of Claude Debussy, Alexander Scriabin, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, the Études-tableaux "summarize their composers' discoveries about the piano and how music for it should be written." Rachmaninoff initially wrote nine pieces for Op. 33 but published only six in 1914. One étude 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 Études Symphoniques.
The Op. 39 set of Études-tableaux, written between 1916 and 1917 and published in 1917, was the last substantial composition written by Rachmaninoff while still in Russia, and it shows a marked departure from his previous work. Rachmaninoff had been listening keenly to his contemporaries Scriabin and Sergei Prokofiev, and had studied Scriabin's works to prepare a memorial recital in which Rachmaninoff himself played in Scriabin's honor. Though he was roundly criticized for his overly-analytical approach in his playing and overall lack of capturing the free-flying spirit that Scriabin had summoned so well in his own pianism, the compositional seeds resulting from his studying Scriabin's work had been planted. A melodic angularity and harmonic pungency appeared in these études as well as in his Op. 38 songs, which were written concurrently. The Op. 39 set is considered much more demanding technically than the Op. 33 set, and has been described as extremely virtuosic in its 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 from those not possessing a tremendous physical technique.
The Op. 33 Études-Tableaux were originally meant to comprise nine études when Rachmaninoff wrote them at Ivanovka. The composer decided to publish only six of them in 1911. Numbers three and five were published posthumously and are often inserted among the six études; number four was transferred to Op. 39, where it appears as number six of that set. (As a consequence, many recordings omit it from Op. 33).
- No. 1 in F minor
- This piece is a study on alternating hands and syncopations. The piece shifts unsteadily throughout in time signature from 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 5/4, and 3/2. Some find parallels between this piece and Chopin's Étude Op. 25, No. 4, jestingly saying that Rachmaninoff played it while writing this étude.
- No. 2 in C major
- No. 3 in C minor
The solemn melody of the elegy is stated right away. However, the full initial theme is not recapitulated and a somewhat tonally ambivalent transitional section, hovering between the tonic minor and the tonic major, resolves into a serene theme in C major. The climax seems to go toward C minor again, but reverts to C major. The piece ends with tranquil C major bell-like chords. The end of this piece is referenced in the second movement of Rachmaninoff's 4th Piano Concerto.
- No. 4 in A minor
- No. 5 (sometimes published as No. 4) in D minor
- No. 6 (published as No. 3) in E-flat minor
- No. 7 (4) in E-flat major
- Nicknamed "Scene at the Fair" as confessed by Rachmaninoff himself to Respighi, the piece conjures a playful and vibrant atmosphere, with its blaring fanfare opening thirds, wild alternating chords and bells in the end. The middle section poses a great pianistic problem with huge leaps of the hand that lead to chordal actions, which at points are 10th chords, rendering playing the figures at the correct tempo much more difficult. The piece requires strength, precision, endurance, rhythmic control, and dynamic and tonal balance.
- No. 8 (5) in G minor
- A melancholy piece whose sixteenth note accompaniment interweaves between hands. The main difficulty of the piece is facilitating smooth alterations with the hands without affecting the fluency of the melody.
- No. 9 (6) in C-sharp minor
- A big, loud piece with prevalent patterns of leaps in the left hand, creating a huge roar. The piece has grand dissonances but also contains a gorgeous romantic interlude.
The Op. 39 set comprises nine études:
- No. 1 in C minor
- This agitated, passionate étude exploits some of the piano's resources almost unrelentingly, demanding a tireless right hand, an often daringly syncopated left hand and considerable dexterity to illuminate inner voices. Technically, the music is in an almost continual climax. It bears a resemblance to Chopin's Prelude in E flat minor.
- No. 2 in A minor
- Also known as "The Sea and the Seagulls". Though technically simple, the work contains many musical textures that make it a difficult study in touch. This melancholy piece requires much restraint from the performer to project the sedate mood of this étude. A sensitive performance is required to keep the music from sounding monotonous. The technical workings of the étude is the 2 over 3 timing, the crossing hands, and large span of the arpeggiated figures for the left hand. The ending is tragic and poetic.
- No. 3 in F-sharp minor
- No. 4 in B minor
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- No. 5 in E-flat minor
- This étude requires very strong fingers and wide hands. The primary passionate and turbulent theme is stated emphatically. Then, the theme is stated at a much quieter volume. This eventually leads to a second yearning melody. This melody is unstable due to the restless accompaniment in the bass. The primary theme is recapitulated and leads to a climax. The music quiets down and the mood turns from passionate to somber. The music grows more desolate before finally concluding in E-flat major, a Picardy Third.
- No. 6 in A minor
- This aggressive and daunting piece opens with threatening chromatic octave runs low on the keyboard, answered by quick, chattering treble figures that eventually transform themselves into a march. The music grows hectic and, having reached presto, sounds nearly out of control. The effect of the piece is seemingly mysterious yet fully unified. Referred to as "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf", the piece ends with the chromatic runs sounding as though the wolf swallowed Red Riding Hood whole.
- This piece was originally the fourth étude of the Op. 33 set. Since it exhibits all the pianistic, rhythmic and harmonic features that characterize the Op, 39 set, we can assume Rachmaninoff revised this piece extensively before including it here.
- No. 7 in C minor
- No. 8 in D minor
- This piece is a lyrical and musical study of double notes. It requires precise pedaling, flexible and independent figures, and agility. The piece has very long, defined legato melodic lines that are contrasted by a staccato middle section.
- No. 9 in D major
In 1929, conductor and music publisher Serge Koussevitzky asked whether Rachmaninoff would select a group of études-tableaux for Italian composer Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate. The commissioned orchestrations would be published by Koussevitzky's firm and Koussevitzky would conduct their premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rachmaninoff responded favorably, selecting five études from Opp. 33 and 39. Respighi rearranged the order of études, but was otherwise faithful to the composer's intent. He gave each étude a distinct title from the programmatic clues Rachmaninoff had given him:
- La mer et les mouettes (The Sea and the Seagulls)
- (Op. 39, No. 2)
- La foire (The Fair)
- (Op. 33, No. 7)
- Marche funèbre (Funeral March)
- (Op. 39, No. 7)
- La chaperon rouge et le loup (Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf)
- (Op. 39, No. 6)
- Marche (March)
- (Op. 39, No. 9)
- Complete Études-Tableaux by Idil Biret (1997), Rustem Hayroudinoff (2007), Nikolai Lugansky (1992) and Vladimir Ashkenazy
- There is a well-received recording, including the originally excised numbers of Op. 33, by Vladimir Ovchinnikov on the EMI Classics label.
- Another well-received recording of the Op. 39 études is by Alexander Melnikov on the Harmonia Mundi label. Other works are the Op. 38 songs and the Variations on a Theme of Corelli.
- BBC Radio 3 chose the recording by Rustem Hayroudinoff (Chandos Records) as the finest version of the Complete Études-Tableaux, in its programme Building a Library.
- Jesús López-Cobos and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra recorded the Respighi orchestrations for the Telarc label.
- Rachmaninoff himself recorded a few études: Op. 33, Nos. 2 and 7  (electrical recording), Op. 39, No. 4 (piano roll only), and Op. 39, No. 6 (electrical recording and piano roll).
- Norris, 84.
- Etudes-Tableaux book chapter
- Norris, 84–85.
- Harrison, 177.
- Rachmaninoff: Life, Works, Recordings By Max Harrison pg. 178
- Harrison, 207.
- Harrison, 208.
- Harrison pg. 180.
- Harrison, 208-209.
- Bertenssohn, 262-263.
- Norris, Geoffrey, Rachmaninoff (New York: Schirmer Books, 1976, 1983). ISBN 0-02-870685-4.
- (Russian) Piano.ru - Sheet music download
- (Russian) Chubrik.ru - Audio download
Complete Opus 39 set by Eduardo Fernandez:
- No. 1 in C Minor
- No. 2 in A Minor
- No. 3 in F Sharp Minor
- No. 4 in B Minor
- No. 5 in E Flat Minor
- No. 6 in A Minor
- No. 7 in C Minor
- No. 8 in D Minor
- No. 9 in D