Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43

by Max Derrickson

Sergey Vasilievich Rachmaninoff     (b Semyonovo, Russia, April 1, 1873; Beverly Hills,CA, March 28, 1943)

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43

Rachmaninoff was a pupil of Tchaikovsky’s at the Moscow Conservatory beginning in 1881, and his admiration for the master directed his musical path throughout his career.  Even unto his death in 1943, Rachmaninoff remained a true disciple of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Romantic style, even while the rest of the music world in the 20th Century had moved far away from Romanticism.

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In 1934, at the peak of his maturity as a composer, Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini.  It is one of those masterpieces that seems to defy any criticism; a piece that many would call perfect.  Using the famous 24th Violin Caprice by the fabled virtuoso violinist, Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840), Rachmaninoff created a set of 24 variations for piano and orchestra.  Within those variations, we hear brilliant virtuosity by the pianist and those beautiful and sumptuous Russian Romantic harmonies and colors in the orchestra.

Three particularly clever surprises leap out from the Rhapsody.  To begin with, Rachmaninoff does not start with Paganini’s theme outright, but rather a short introduction and then essentially the first of the 24 variations, which is the bare-bones of the theme.
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Another  surprise reminds us of Rachmaninoff’s Russian heritage, one that brims with church chant.  In Variation 7 we begin to hear hints of the Dies irae, that ancient chant from the Mass for the Dead made so famous by Berlioz in Symphonie fantastique, and a theme that plays prominently in several of Rachmaninoff’s other works.  By the end of this Rhapsody we will have heard the Dies irae several times outright,
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. . . the old tale of Paganini’s selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for superhuman gifts with the violin (and with women).  No one has ever verified Paganini’s Faustian bargain, but it fits the perfect narrative of many an old Russian folktale, and it’s no wonder Rachmaninoff couldn’t resist some reference to it.

And then, of course, in Variation 18 comes the concerto’s grandest moment, Rachmaninoff’s exquisite Rhapsody variation, which doesn’t sound like Paganini in any way.  Lush and drippingly romantic, the genius of this theme is that it is, in fact, Paganini’s theme turned upside down and played more slowly, creating what is probably Rachmaninoff’s most famous lyrical theme.
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