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Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Like Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, the Rhapsody traverses highly expressive Russian romanticism and brilliant virtuosity.

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Semyonovo, district of Starorusky, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. He composed his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini during the summer of 1934, at his home in Switzerland. The first performance took place on November 7, 1934, in Baltimore, with Rachmaninoff as piano soloist and Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In addition to the solo piano, the score of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini calls for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, side drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The Rhapsody is about 24 minutes long.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was far from the first composer (others include Chopin, Brahms, and Liszt) to find vicarious creative excitement in the explosive personality of superstar violin virtuoso Nicolò Paganini. One of the most vivid, highly publicized, and widely imitated musician-composers of the 19th century, Paganini (1782-1840) dazzled audiences with his superhuman technique and gaudy showmanship, and scandalized them with his voracious appetite for women and gambling. Observers astonished by the unprecedented scale of his talent repeatedly accused Paganini of having supernatural powers gained through a Faustian pact with the devil. Even the German poet Goethe, who knew a thing or two about Faust, found himself at a loss for words when confronted with Paganini: “I lack a base for this column of sunbeams and clouds. I heard something simply meteoric and was unable to understand it.”

Although Paganini’s music is not considered by most critics to possess much substance or gravitas, having been created primarily to showcase his circus-like acrobatics on the strings, its exuberance and charm cannot be denied. Nowhere are these qualities more attractively displayed than in the Twenty-four Caprices for Solo Violin (Ventiquattro Capricci per violino solo), Opus 1. Begun when Paganini was still a teenager, these pieces, each one ornamented with astonishing technical tricks like filigree on a shiny jeweled surface, contain what one writer has described as “a whole school of violin playing.” Brahms called them “a great contribution to musical composition in general and to violin in particular,” and was particularly drawn to the last in the series, No. 24 in A minor, itself a set of eleven variations on a beguiling simple tune.

So taken was Brahms with Paganini’s theme that in 1865 he completed a major work for piano based on it: “Studies for Pianoforte: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Books 1 and 2.” Franz Liszt, himself a renowned virtuoso and admirer of Paganini’s theatricality, also made an arrangement of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in his Six Grandes Études de Paganini for solo piano. Rachmaninoff, then, was treading upon well-worn soil when he decided in spring 1934 to produce his own work for piano and orchestra using this same little flexible and malleable tune. Nor was Rachmaninoff the last to draw water from this well. In more recent years, composers as diverse as Lutosławski, John Dankworth, and Andrew Lloyd Webber have created pieces inspired by Paganini’s Caprice No. 24.

In his biography of Rachmaninoff, Barrie Martyn has explained why this theme makes such good material for variations. “It enshrines that most basic of musical ideas, the perfect cadence, literally in its first half and in a harmonic progression in the second, which itself expresses a musical aphorism; and the melodic line is made distinctive by a repetition of a simple but immediately memorable four-note semi-quaver [sixteenth-note] figure.” The circular theme (in 2/4) divides into two equal parts, the second being an elaboration of the first, and returns firmly and effortlessly to the tonic key of A minor. Perhaps even more important for a theme used for variations, it is immediately recognizable and distinct, even hummable, so that it retains its lightly muscled contours even through drastic transformations. In his variations for solo piano, Brahms had used the theme much as Paganini did, as a springboard for demanding technical exercises without a clearly defined overall structure. What Rachmaninoff did in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is quite different, going far beyond the theme to create a large-scale concerto-style work for piano and orchestra with a clear and independent sense of formal design and sonority.

As numerous commentators have suggested, the Rhapsody is less about the theme of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 than about the myth of Paganini, the quintessential Romantic virtuoso. As a renowned virtuoso himself (this aspect of his career had become especially pronounced in the United States, often to his irritation), Rachmaninoff was clearly drawn to the image of Paganini, particularly the persistent rumors of his demonic character and connections. This explains why, in the Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff chose to juxtapose Paganini’s theme with prominent quotations from the familiar Dies irae theme of the Catholic Requiem Mass. This theme (also used in the Symphonie fantastique of Berlioz, among numerous other works) had traditionally been associated with death and supernatural forces, and also shows up in several other of Rachmaninoff’s later scores (the Piano Concerto No. 4 and Symphonic Dances).

That Rachmaninoff found a strong emotional connection with Paganini seems to be confirmed by the (in his case) highly unusual speed with which he completed the Rhapsody. It took him only seven weeks, from July 1 to mid-August of 1934. Not long before, he had moved with his family to a villa constructed for him near Lucerne, their first permanent home since leaving Russia soon after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Exile from Russia had already taken a strong emotional toll upon Rachmaninoff. After 1917, he would produce only four orchestral works: the Symphony No. 3, the Piano Concerto No. 4, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and the Symphonic Dances. Most of his energy went to making extensive tours as a virtuoso: he played sixty-nine dates in the 1934-35 season alone. Rachmaninoff complained of this punishing schedule in a letter written a few weeks after he finished the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. “Shall I hold out? I begin to evaporate. It’s often more than I can bear just to play. In short—I’ve grown old.” At the time, Rachmaninoff was 61 years old, just four years older than Paganini was when he died, burnt out by the frenetic existence of a virtuoso.

By the time he composed the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Rachmaninoff had already completed four large concertos for piano and orchestra and was a master of the form. Evidently he was at first unsure what to call the new composition, considering such titles as “Symphonic Variations” and “Fantasia” before settling on “Rhapsody.” The label of “Rhapsody”—which implies no particular form and has been used to describe very different kinds of works—belies the fact that the piece has a highly planned formal structure that corresponds rather closely to that of a traditional sonata or concerto. The twenty-four variations on Paganini’s theme are grouped into three sections. The first ten, in A minor, constitute an opening movement, with the introduction of the Dies irae theme in variation 7. (It reappears in variations 10, 22, and 24.) After the dreamy, transitional variation No. 11, variations 12 to 18 proceed like a slow movement, moving gradually from D minor to D-flat major for the climactic (and longest) variation, No. 18. Here the Paganini theme appears in inverted form, first in a sublimely lyrical twelve-bar passage for the soloist, then joined by the strings—music destined to become some of the most famous Rachmaninoff ever created. Returning to A minor, the final six variations act like a finale, featuring several impressive cadenzas. The last of these thunders downward through a resurgence of the Dies irae theme before halting abruptly at an amusingly understated restatement of the jaunty tail end of Paganini’s theme.

In the Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff overcame the crisis of confidence he had experienced in composing the Concerto No. 4, which he revised several times without ever feeling entirely satisfied. Here, he joined his long-admired gift for soaring, soulful melody with a fresh structural ingenuity. By turns playful, melancholy, military, and dramatic, the twenty-four variations are brilliant not only individually, but as part of a unified artistic whole. Of the New York premiere of the Rhapsody by the New York Philharmonic under Bruno Walter with Rachmaninoff at the keyboard, Robert A. Simon wrote in The New Yorker: “The Rachmaninoff variations, written with all the composer’s skill, turned out to be the most successful novelty that the Philharmonic Symphony has had since Mr. Toscanini overwhelmed the subscribers with Ravel’s Bolero.”

A few years later, Rachmaninoff’s friend, the Russian émigré dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine, created a ballet, Paganini, using the music from the Rhapsody and a scenario written by Rachmaninoff about Paganini’s rumored dealing with the devil. It was produced in London in 1939 by Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes. The dramatic possibilities of the Rhapsody also attracted the interest of film people. In the 1953 Hollywood feature The Story of Three Loves, directed by Vincente Minnelli and Gottfried Reinhardt, with a score by Miklós Rózsa, Moira Shearer (of Red Shoes fame) performs a ballet choreographed by Frederick Ashton to Rachmaninoff’s music—and then drops dead.

Harlow Robinson

Harlow Robinson is an author, lecturer, and Matthews Distinguished University Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northeastern University. His books include Sergei Prokofiev: A Biography and Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Cineaste, and Opera News, and he has written program notes for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Metropolitan Opera.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini took place on December 24 and 25, 1937, with the composer as soloist and Serge Koussevitzky conducting.