Little Red Riding Hood

Etude Tableaux Opus 39, No 6 by Serge Rachmaninoff – live performance by the Boulder Brass from February 2013
Brass ensemble arrangement available by clicking here

I’ve been a big fan of Rachmaninoff’s music for many years, but arranging his music for brass presents, in some cases, insurmountable problems.

He was a virtuoso pianist with huge hands and his piano writing reflects that. He was a master of pianistic effect (lots of notes used to create a canvas) and those effects are difficult to orchestrate in a way that doesn’t compromise the music too much. And his orchestral writing is very dense and rich.

I’ve had various preludes and etudes in the hopper for a long time, but have never finished them – I always seem to run into a wall.

7 years ago, I had the fortune to travel to Japan on a sister cities exchange with a brass quintet and a pianist, and we had opportunity to play a couple of recitals together. There isn’t a lot of music for the combination, so I asked the piano player for some suggestions about pieces she would like to play where she thought the addition of brass might be appropriate. She suggested the Etude Tableaux Opus 39, No 9 by Rachmaninoff which is sometimes referred to as Russian Bells. Challenge accepted!

As I worked through a piano and brass version of the piece, I began to realize there might be some potential for brass ensemble. I spent a lot of time listening to Murray Perahia’s expert performance featured on Youtube, watching him play and absorbing some of the interpretative ideas. And the brass ensemble version eventually became a reality – it’s difficult, but I think it works.

However, that’s not the focus here. While watching Perahia, I was introduced to Valentina Lisitsa and her fiery and brilliant performance of Etude Tableaux Opus 39, Number 6 (and many others – I’ve spent countless hours watching her play various pieces on Youtube – I’m a fan). At first, this piece seemed totally out of reach, but as I listened and watched, I realized that there might be ways to resolve the rapid filigree that would not totally blur the composer’s intent in a brass version.

About the title –  in 1929, with Rachmaninoff’s permission, Serge Koussevitzky asked Ottorino Respighi to orchestrate some of the Etudes Tableaux, to be performed by the Boston Symphony. As you may know, Koussevitzky was responsible for another famous collaboration commissioning Ravel to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Respighi accepted the commission and selected five etudes from Opus 33 and 39, giving each piece a distinct title from the programmatic clues Rachmaninoff had provided to him. Little Red Riding Hood was Respighi’s title, suggested by Rachmaninoff, for Opus 39, No 6.


What first attracted me to this piece, were the rumbling bass octaves which immediately suggested tuba and euphonium. I thought it would be fun to play with my buddy. I quickly made the decision to move the whole piece down a M2 from to g minor, not because that lays better on B flat instruments but because the chattering soprano works it way up to a high g6 on the second page. I’ll work a piccolo trumpet part up to a written g, but the written a seems a little dicey to me. I know, it’s possible, but…

Then there’s this – this is a problem.

Anything approaching Valentina’s break neck pace will render this impossible for brass as written. So it needs to be broken up into its component parts (see featured image above). Once I landed on this solution, much of the piece arranged itself as this is a recurring motif.

A quick word about the piano writing in the sixth measure in the example above. In the other instances of that running bass clef figure, left and right hand play the same figure in octaves. Rachmaninoff did not write that here and it is my belief that it’s not because he didn’t want it, but rather the right hand simply couldn’t make the leap of 2 octaves from the end of measure 5 to the beginning of measure 6 in tempo.

A naive or purist arranger might take this literally and not bring in the brass voice until the second beat. You should be on the lookout for compromises made by composers due to practical limitations of piano technique. It will make your realization more clever if you do.

I’m also pleased with the solutions to these thorny licks:

And here’s the score page with the solutions:

Regarding the live performance from February 2013 above – this was the first time out with the piece on a program that included 4 other new arrangements and 2 pieces new to the group (Britten Russian Funeral Music, and DiLorenzo Russian Circus Music) as well as the Shostakovich Concertino, Opus 94. We also performed this entire program without a conductor.

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