Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) were virtuosos of their eras. There the similarities seem to end. In the 20th century, Rachmaninoff, a pianist, was criticized as a sentimental tunesmith and too-late Romantic, and even today diehard modernists give his pieces the stink eye. In the 19th century, people said Paganini sold his soul to the devil for superhuman violin chops—or, in another legend, strangled his wife and learned to fiddle in prison.

The common theme is discomfort with the intersection of art and entertainment, which is exactly where Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini lives—but not cheaply so. The variation form is especially appropriate, as it led a kind of dual life as a vehicle for flashy salon showpieces on the one hand, and a technique for radical experimentation and expression on the other. Rachmaninoff knew he could do both at the same time.

The theme comes from Paganini’s 24th Caprice in A minor for solo violin, published in 1818. Though Paganini presumably devised the tune himself, the theme feels obvious and inevitable—like common property—and Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms all wrote solo piano variations on it before Rachmaninoff made his version as a quasi-concerto. He composed it over the summer of 1934 at Senar, his Lake Lucerne estate, and premiered it on November 7 of the same year, in Baltimore, Maryland, with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The Music

The 24 variations are played without pause, but can be divided into three sections: fast, slow, and fast (roughly speaking). The Rhapsody starts with a quick introduction and Variation I for the orchestra alone. Only then is the theme presented—in the violins, naturally. Variations II–VI explore different elements of theme at a brisk pace, while VII steps back into a choralelike refection. Variation X introduces a second theme: the Dies irae chant from the Requiem Mass, finished off with a jazzy sparkle.

Variation XI enters a new world of eerie tremolo and languid impressionism. XII is a minuet, while XIII is a heavy plod, with the theme reemerging more audibly in the strings. Soon enough, the moment we’ve all been waiting for is here… Variation XVIII, Andante cantabile. It sounds like an original Rachmaninoff melody, but it derives directly from an inversion of the main theme. Where Paganini goes up a minor third, Rachmaninoff goes down a minor third. Where Paganini goes down a half step, Rachmaninoff goes up a half step. Down a whole step, up a whole step. Up a fifth, down a fifth. Slow it all down and make a few adjustments, and out pours this gorgeous expanse. Rachmaninoff must have sat at his piano at Senar, discovered this secret, and marveled at it. But supposedly he just said, “this one is for my agent.”

The last set of variations clears the air with a pizzicato intro. XIX is a hollowed-out contour of the theme, XX rushes with brassy touches. XXI–XXIII tumble down Flight of the Valkyries style, before the Dies irae returns out of the fairy chorus of XXIV. A big glissando and a tight punchline.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.