Rachmaninoff “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43 (1934)

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840)

Caprice No. 24, op. 1 (1819)

Paganini’s handwritten music manuscript

Paganini Caprice No. 24 (printed)

The 18th century violin virtuoso Nicolai Paganini’s legacy is nothing short of legend. In addition to arguably being the world’s first rock star, his performances were so jaw-dropping that his contemporaries concluded that he must have sold his soul to the devil in order to play so well. Paganini had to compose his own pieces in order to be able to show off his abilities, and no one else at the time would have even attempted to perform them. Centuries later, with the advantages of modern technology and advances in violin-making that make pyrotechnics much easier to navigate on the instrument, modern violinists still struggle with the difficulty of his compositions (the caprices’ fiendish difficulty does not exempt young violinists from being required to learn them–an informal survey of former Hot Springs violinists found that various loud curses best described the attitude towards the caprice played tonight). This particular caprice (a theme and variations itself) has led to an incredible number of variations by later composers. While Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody for piano and orchestra is perhaps best known, composers such as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms, and even Andrew Lloyd Webber have all taken the theme for their own.

The Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff fled his homeland after the Revolution of 1917, never to return. He found wild popularity in America, but his punishing performance schedule led him to compose only around a half-dozen more works during the course of the rest of his life. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was one of them, and aptly demonstrates his ability to adapt his Russian senses to the tastes of an American audience. It also demonstrates one of Rachmaninoff’s eccentricities–like Paganini, Rachmaninoff is hypothesized to have had Marfan’s syndrome, a disease that is characterized in part by long, slender limbs and large hands with a wide finger stretch. This might explain both Paganini’s “inhuman” abilities and the incredible difficulty of Rachmaninoff’s compositions (which he seemed to perform with great ease). (a comic take on Rachmaninoff’s hands)

The piece is not truly an unstructured rhapsody, but is actually a series of 24 variations, much like the original work. But while some of the variations are obvious, many of them are so subtle as to sound like completely new music. The famous eighteenth variation, for instance, was created by inverting Paganini’s theme, slowing it down, and applying careful orchestrational techniques until it evolved into one of the richest, most beautiful, most gut-wretching tunes of all time.

The work opens with an introduction and then, untraditionally, a deconstructed version of the theme that is actually the first variation, all before the presentation of the theme. But in deference to Paganini’s caprice, every single violin is allowed to demonstrate the original theme with the piano only playing the barest skeleton. Then the pianist takes off to demonstrate his own virtuosity, and does not really relinquish control of the orchestra until the end of the work. By the seventh variation, Rachmaninoff adds a new twist–in homage to Paganini’s supposed “deal with the Devil” and actual excommunication, the piano sounds a version of the chant “Dies irae” (Day of Wrath) over the lower strings, who staunchly pluck a variation of the Paganini theme. By the tenth variation, the chant is no longer veiled and the piano intones it in octaves over the clarinets, playing in their low register. The tone darkens, but when the 18th variation arrives, it is as though the sunlight has broken through the clouds. The 22nd and 23rd variations are connected by a brief cadenza, and from that point the piece builds to its conclusion. But the last cadence is a wink from Rachmaninoff, as he flips off a fragment of the nearly-forgotten theme to complete the work.

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~program notes by Jessica Davis, copyright 2012
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