Below is a step by step “tour” of a short piece imagined in relation to the story of Little Red Riding Hood. The timings beside each paragraph correspond to the timings on the video so you can follow along if you wish. You can either listen to the piece first (it’s only about a minute and a half long) and then read the story, read first and then listen, or do some kind of combination thereof. There is no right or wrong way!
Little Red Riding Hood
Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 33: V. Non allegro in E-Flat Minor:
Approximately one minute and thirty-five seconds: that is how long this piano piece is. But even something so short can trigger an intriguing story.
The opening sonorities are cautious, unsettling, and empty. These adjectives could describe a number of literary scenarios, but the one I imagined was Little Red Riding Hood about to start on her way to Grandmother’s house. She gets this prickle at the back of her neck like someone—or something—is watching her. There is a sense of foreshadowing. I sense that something bad is about to happen but I just don’t know what.
0:08 Then suddenly, the music gets much faster, winding upwards and spiraling with tension. If we are looking at the music through the lenses of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, this strikes me as the wolf chasing Red through the forest. The higher notes that suddenly appear strike me with a sense of innocence—I imagine that Red doesn’t know that the Wolf is chasing her and that those high notes represent her perspective: light-hearted and innocent of the danger. The lower surging notes of the Wolf come back briefly to give a strong contrast between Red’s innocence and the Wolf’s stalking. But Red’s perspective (I imagine her skipping through the forest) comes back almost immediately with the higher, carefree notes again.
0:27 The Wolf continues to get closer as the music builds in intensity until it again morphs into Red’s perspective. But now she seems to know that something is up (based on the blurring of the Wolf’s and Red’s music, low and high notes respectively). She tries to keep calm as she glances around her, shown by the tentative high notes, but the descending lines of those high notes give a slightly sinister bent to the situation, again showing her growing awareness of a malignant presence in the woods, creeping closer…and closer…until—
0:39 BAM. The Wolf jumps out at her in the sudden loud, low notes that come out of nowhere. He is chasing her in the open now as the music continues to escalate in intensity. Ironically, it grows into a repetition of the higher Red Riding Hood notes. To me, this could mean one of two things: 1) the music is mocking Red’s previous innocence (she thought she was safe in the woods—ha!); or 2) because Red’s carefree music is sandwiched between intense Wolf chase music, it gains a more terrified feeling and therefore actually conveys her current emotions. Even though it is the same music that conjured up innocence before, the context of the dark notes surrounding and mixing with them changes the emotion I hear or at least gives an ironic twist to it.
0:50 Now comes the last surge of the Wolf chase—as the music fades, Red thinks she may have outrun him and escaped. The high notes in tandem with the low notes give an ethereal feel that suggests she is still on her guard, but thinks the danger might be passed. The music is very hesitant and nervous.
1:17 The last downward movement mirrors the opening, but this time it is much faster. The return of that foreshadowing figure reminds me that the initial foreshadowing didn’t lie because something bad was there—namely the Wolf. But as the music ends with low Wolf notes that almost start back up but not quite, I feel that he is still out in the forest, lurking, waiting to snatch up Red. As a result, the faster version of the foreshadowing figure adds a sense of urgency and in fact seems to foreshadow more dark events to come (the Wolf eating the Grandmother and swallowing Red?). The Wolf chase and consequent destruction of Red’s pure happy-go-lucky attitude necessarily gives this new foreshadowing a new, more bitter, and expectant flavor. Now she knows that the Wolf is still out there, lurking…
What I heard was not 100% consistent with the original tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Instead, it was a darker, horror-story version. To me, this music doesn’t suggest a Wolf casually chatting with Red along the forest path, but actively chasing her in a murderous passion. I also love how it leaves me guessing—does the Wolf get Red in the end? What does she do with her newfound street smarts (or rather path smarts)?
Other versions of the etude by other performers may yield slightly or drastically different stories, even if we stick with the same Red Riding Hood framework. For example, in some recordings, like the one by Alexander Budyonny, performers may give a sharper attack on the last note of the last upward-moving line at the end of the piece (the one that becomes the start of the repeated foreshadowing downward-motion). In such a case, you could imagine that the Wolf has jumped out and gobbled up Red. Then the return of the foreshadowing can provide an ironic sense of closure: the terrible foreshadowed event, Red swallowed by the Wolf, has come to pass despite her best efforts to make it otherwise. OHMPF.
Did you find this story easy to follow in the music? Did you enjoy it or did it clash with your own ideas? I would love to hear your reactions!
To watch a Red Riding Hood silent film specifically created to match a Haydn piano sonata: Red Riding Hood Silent Film with Classical Music
You can also listen to more Classical Music Stories with works including Romeo and Juliet, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and more here.