20 Aug 2019

RACHMANINOFF – Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

by Michael Clive

Performance time: 23 minutes

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody in 1934, when he had already written four full-length concertos. Not just a collection of variations on a theme, it is a concertante that is formally constructed, with the 24 variations dividing themselves into three movements in which most of the variations, like Paganini’s original theme, are stated and developed in A minor. The result closely resembles a concerto: It has traditional fast, slow and faster movements, and it incorporates additional thematic materials to develop musical ideas in a formal way.

Listeners who cannot quite place the formal title of the Rhapsody will immediately recognize Paganini’s familiar main subject, which is the best-known and -loved of his set of 24 violin caprices. It’s built upon a pair of peppery A-minor phrases that sound vaguely demonic, especially on the violin. The melody starts with an emphatic A, and then, after a quick four-note figure, jumps up to E — then drops an octave to a lower E, repeats the four-note figure starting on E rather than A to arrive back where it began. This basic progression — start on the tonic, jump up a fifth, drop an octave and jump up a fourth to the tonic again — it often called “circular,” and it could be repeated in an endless loop if a counterbalancing phrase didn’t intervene…eventually resolving it on the same tonic note.

In Rachmaninoff’s treatment of this theme, the first ten variations form an opening movement, with another theme — a quotation of the Dies irae theme of the Latin mass — arising in variations 7, 10, 22 and 24. Variation 11 consists of a slow, poetic transition that leads us into a slow movement that moves gradually from D minor to D-flat minor, culminating in the most famous musical interlude in the entire Rhapsody, variation 18. You’ll be lost in the beauties of Rachmaninoff’s lush romanticism when this variation, vernal and ecstatic, soars forth, literally turning the original theme on its head — a direct inversion of Paganini’s original A-minor subject. Understanding its potential popularity, Rachmaninoff is reported to have quipped “this [variation] is for my agent.” It is often played as a stand-alone work.