Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.5, “Vocalise” & uncanny resemblances to Chopin Op.28, No.5

In a previous blog post, I listed some of the defining characteristics of the Rachmaninoff Style. Besides the ubiquitous use of mode mixture (turn to any page of the Second Piano Concerto or the Cello Sonata), the one characteristic that most gives the Rachmaninoff Style its often somber, lugubrious quality is perhaps the frequent use of descending chromatic voice-leading. (Indeed, mode mixture in Rachmaninoff’s music is often produced by these descending chromatic lines.)

I could have chosen any number of passages from the Rachmaninoff oeuvre to demonstrate here, but the two I have chosen are the opening measures of the Etude-tableau, Op.39 No.5 in E-flat minor and the middle section of his famous “Vocalise” from the Op. 34 set of Romances. I also chose these two because they both feature complementary ascending melodic lines at structural moments. I will conclude by showing an uncanny resemblance between a passage in the second of these two examples and a passage from Chopin’s B-minor prelude! (If you want to skip through the music theory mumbo-jumbo, skip down to Example 5.)

Rachmaninoff’s Etude-Tableau in E-flat minor, Op.39, No.5

The opening of the E-flat minor etude-tableau gives a good example not only of these descending chromatic harmonic lines and the ascending melodic phrases that often appear with them, but also of the apparent chords that often result from such chromatic lines. Below are two examples of the pertinent passage. The first contains a reduction that shows the chromatic lines more clearly. The second contains a harmonic reduction with chromatic descents indicated by straight lines. (Dashed lines indicate diatonic descending lines.)

Listen here
EXAMPLE 1A (click images to enlarge)


In Example 1A, notice the ascending chromatic melody leading into the climactic moment of the passage (mm.7-8) with an Ab-Gb appoggiatura. This climax is followed by a sequence of mini chromatic ascensions which may be thought of as “aftershocks” after the main climax. The sequence is descending, of course.

Example 1B, however, shows more clearly the resulting harmonies produced in the passage, several of which are merely passing, apparent chords. (With the pedal tones in place, inversions become irrelevant.) For example, it is unclear what chord is produced in measure 3 when the fifth of the preceding minor dominant chord is flattened and an Ab is added. Is the Bb half diminished chord simply a coloristic vø7? What also of the chord produced with the Ab drops to G-natural? Is this G-Bb-Db-Fb chord really the viio7/iv is appears to be? If so, then the previous chord looks more like a predominant of iv: iiø7/iv. However, the following Cb major seventh chord would seem to suggest this is the wrong tack. This chord would be III7 in the key area of iv, but a iiø7—viio7—III7 progression seems odd, and the bottom line is that there is no iv chord in the vicinity and we’ll be hard-pressed to hear it as tonic. Perhaps the G-natural fully diminished chord isn’t a viio7/iv but a misspelled viio7/VI (should be A# C# E# G) since a VI chord follows? The problem is that the Bb, which should be acting as the leading-tone is not behaving properly. The fact that the Bb has been serving as a pedal from bar 1 prevents the ear from expecting any kind of resolution to Cb. These two chords are best described as passing “apparent” chords. (The VI7 might as well be called an apparent chord, though it’s moving to viio7 is at least quasi-functional, with the exception of the non-resolving apparent seventh (Bb).)

Then an interesting thing happens. The same chord re-emerges four times, each time “resolving” to a different sonority. The A fully-diminished chord appears to be a viio7/V, right? However, in the first three occasions, the chord does not behave as such. Notice what happens. In each case, different chord members of the apparent viio7/V resolve down by half step into the chords that follow. In measures 6-7, the A and C resolve down to Ab and Cb respectively, creating a viio7/V?—iv progression. In measures 8-9, the A, Eb and Gb resolve down to Ab, D-natural and F, creating a viio7/V?—viio progression. In the third case in measure 10, the A and Gb move to Ab and F while the Eb moves down by whole step to Db, creating a viio7?—VII progression.


Only in the final instance in m.11 can the “apparent” label to our chord be shed since we arrive at a dominant chord on beat 3 of the measure. However, the “proper” resolution does not take place without some alteration first. Rachmaninoff withholds the C-natural that appeared in each of the previous instances of our “viio/V?” chord and introduces a Cb in beat 2 instead, thereby transforming the viio7/V which the listener has grown accustomed to into a German augmented-sixth chord. Interestingly, the added Cb allows for an extra chromatic descent in the resolution of the chromaticized predominant sonority. Not only is the Eb moving to D-natural and the A-natural sliding down to provide the Ab seventh of the V7, the Bb is arrived at from the Cb above. It’s as if the viio7/V couldn’t achieve a “proper” resolution (after three attempts) without the assistance of an additional chromatic descent. In this final case, the Gb is also held through and becomes a 6th substituted for the fifth of the chord. This provides a Me-Do (Gb-Eb) resolution that imitates the Bb-Gb melodic motion into measure 4. If furthermore provides the outlined full outlined tonic triad Bb-Gb-Eb to end the opening section, imitating the frequent descending triadic arpeggios heard before (mm.1, 6, 8).

If you don’t know the rest of the piece, treat yourself! The bass movement in the final measure in Example 1 (m.12) hints at the impending reharmonization of our melody. Rachmaninoff has through the use of pedal tones, set our ears up for a fresh harmonization—a standard Rachmaninoff device.

“VOCALISE” from Romances, Op.34

The second excerpt, shown in Example 3, is from Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” the final song from the Opus 34 set of Romances. “Vocalise” was singled out by Russian conductor-pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who studied at the Moscow Conservatory as Rachmaninoff did, as being the one piece that sums of Rachmaninoff, the one piece that captures the essence of his oeuvre.

The reduction in Example 3 shows the proliferation once again of descending chromatic voice-leading. Listen to the languishing expressive effect of these descents, followed by the reversal ascension at the structural moment of cadence in bar 17.

Listen here

The effect is one of deflation and the short ascent leading into the cadence does very little to offer hope.

This passage is from the middle of the piece and is developmental in nature. This may explain the multiple keys in the roman numeral analysis. Apparent chords proliferate to such an extent that any tonal grounding is lost until the cadential ascent.

Rachmaninoff follows a pattern here: Major triads become minor triads which in turn become diminished triads which are then reinterpreted into new keys.

Chopin’s Prelude in B minor, Op.28, No.5

Then I had an epiphany. I had been studying this passage at a time when I was grading music theory papers. One student had written a paper analyzing the Chopin B minor prelude. As I was reading her paper, I noticed something that looked familiar:

Listen here

Beginning in measure 5, after two statements of the cello-like melody that begin with an arpeggio, Chopin embellishes. After the third arpeggio, this time at the submediant chord of G major, the harmonic progression begins to deteriorate. Chopin begins introducing descending chromatic lines in the voice-leading which produce apparent chords, much like the Rachmaninoff “Vocalise” passage I had been looking at. Surely this was a coincidence. Surely there are many dozens of Romantic pieces that use descending chromaticism which result in apparent harmonies. Then I noticed that Chopin, like Rachmaninoff, turns the descents around to a chromatic ascent just before the structural cadence. I began to think that perhaps Rachmaninoff had, whether consciously or not, been influenced by Chopin whose music he no doubt played as a pianist in training.

The closer I looked at these two passages, the more things jumped out. I noticed that in both cases, when the passages arrives at the spot where the apparent chords stop—the spot where tonal grounding begins to be re-introduced—we hear a fully-diminished seventh chord. Not only that, but we hear the same diminished seventh chord, though spelled differently (fxo7 and a#o7), and more specifically, they were both viio43 in the ensuing key. Furthermore, the same voice-exchange occurs at these moments in both passages moving from a 43 inversion to a 65 bass position. In both cases, we hear a Re-to-Fa movement in the upper voice and a Fa-to-Re movement in the bass. Lastly, after this voice-exchange, both passages make their way to a Fa-Fi-Sol bass line with Fi being harmonized with a viio7/V.

But this is all just a big coincidence to be sure. Right? Maybe not. There is evidence suggesting that Rachmaninoff may have been influenced by the Chopin prelude, whether directly or indirectly. First, it should be remembered Rachmaninoff recorded and performed the works of Chopin more prolifically than any those of other composer (excluding himself). Second, it should be remembered that there is a precedent for Rachmaninoff directly referencing Chopin’s music in his own. He used another Chopin prelude (the C minor prelude, Op.28/20) as a basis for his first large-scale piano work—the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22 from 1902-03. (Rachmaninoff can’t help but add extra mode mixture to Chopin’s theme!) Third, the Opus 34 songs, for which Vocalise serves as a conclusion, were finished during the same period as the Opus 32 set of preludes which when combined with the Opus 23 set is considered to be modeled directly on the Polish composer’s op.28 Preludes. Lastly, Rachmaninoff held Chopin in such high regard as a composer that suggesting such a direct influence is hardly implausible. Rachmaninoff said of Chopin:

“Chopin! From the time when I was nineteen years old I felt his greatness and I marvel at it still. He is today more modern than many moderns. It is incredible that he should remain so modern. His genius is so tremendous that not any composer of today is more modern in style, and he remains for me one of the greatest of the giants… Would that another Chopin might arise to bring new pianistic beauties to the world! Notwithstanding all the playing I do during the course of the year, I find myself continually playing Chopin at home, just for the sheer pleasure of the thing. There is a delight in letting one’s fingers run through his perfectly moulded passages. every note seems to be just where it belongs to produce the finest effect, and not one seems to be out of place. There is nothing to add and nothing to take away.”
(Rachmaninoff articles: ‘Interpretation Depends on Talent and Personality’ and ‘How Russian Students Work’, in The Etude, April 1932, p.240, and May 1923, p.2; quoted in Martyn, Barrie. Rachmaninoff: Composer, Pianist, Conductor. Scolar Press, 1990.)

The uncanny resemblances of the two passages emerge more readily when the Chopin passage is transposed to g# minor, the key of the Rachmaninoff passage:


The bass lines map on to each other: D-C#-B-A#…G…C-Cx-D. The upper voices’ of the Rachmaninoff also map onto the Chopin, though in a less straightforward way: B-A#-B-C#-D#… then the soprano line follows the Chopin sixteenth note figure in delayed fashion (D#-C#-B-A#-G#) while Rachmaninoff’s piano accompaniment maps onto the remaining eighths of Chopin’s measure 8 (Fx-G#-Fx). Notice, too, the other similiarities in the right hand parts of both pieces: E# diminished root position chord moving to a Fx fully-diminished in 3rd inversion. Then later the Fx dimished chord reappearing, with Chopin spelling the E as a Dx (Fx in the original B minor), then to a Cx diminished chord, with Rachmaninoff moving the E# to the left hand.


About Luke Dahn

Composer and music theorist Luke Dahn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Utah. He is also co-founder and artistic co-director of Ensemble Périphérie, and lives in Salt Lake City with his wife Yu Jueng and daughter Mae. http://www.lukedahn.net.
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2 Responses to Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.5, “Vocalise” & uncanny resemblances to Chopin Op.28, No.5

  1. Pingback: “Fixing” Bach’s D Major Fugue from WTC2, bwv874 « For M is Musick

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