The Op. 39 set of Études-Tableaux, written between 1916 and 1917 and published in 1917, was the last substantial composition written by Rachmaninoff in Russia. It shows a marked departure from his previous work. Rachmaninoff listened keenly to his contemporaries Scriabin and Sergei Prokofiev, and studied Scriabin's works to prepare a memorial recital in Scriabin's honor. Though he was roundly criticized for his over-analytical approach in his playing and failure to capture Scriabin's style, the first seeds of composition had been planted.
This quick-paced étude demands a tireless right hand, a syncopated left hand and considerable dexterity. 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". The work contains many musical textures that make it a difficult study in touch. It requires the performer to restrain themselves and at the same time not sound 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. This left hand figure quotes the Dies Irae plainchant, one of the many works by the composer to do so.
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, it can be assumed 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.