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Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Rachmaninov admitted he was much influenced by both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. In itself, that's innocent enough, but the Russian Nationalist Rimsky-Korsakov favoured “insularity”, while Tchaikovsky inclined towards basing emergent Russian culture on Western European models, and thus favoured “community”. Rachmaninov incorporated the best of both. If he'd been a footballer, his manager would undoubtedly have called him a “natural”: he said that, “. . . when writing down my music, [I try] to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart . . .” He saw himself as a composer, first and foremost, performing only to further his compositional reputation. Only after retreating to the USA following the Bolshevik Revolution did he pursue the career of virtuoso pianist, driven by an overriding need for food. 

His first three concertos were written in the homeland that nurtured both the style and content of his music. The shorter, terser Fourth Concerto (1926) was not well-received, prompting speculation that he had left his compositional powers “back home”. In fact, the opposite was true: the influence of his homeland was inevitably dimming, while over a seven-year period many new and exciting ideas impinged on him, and intensive involvement with performance practicalities was convincing him that his earlier works were, to borrow Stravinsky's phrase, “wastefully large”. His final period produced works less opulent, more brittle, “leaner and fitter”, prime examples being the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) and Third Symphony (1936). Another decisive factor in his striking out in this new direction may have been the intervening Variations for Piano on a Theme of Corelli: the structure of his “Fifth Concerto” effectively weds concerto and variations forms. The former preserved the “old” Rachmaninov and the latter crystallised the “new”, though why he called it a “rhapsody” remains a complete mystery. 

But, why choose that particular theme, which had already been done to death, not least by Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, pianists all? Why not, being a composer of proven thematic fertility, an original theme? Well, Rachmaninov described his new work to a friend as, “. . . a Fantasia . . . in the form of variations on a theme by Paganini”. Saying “a theme” rather than specifying that particular theme implies that he was holding back on a choice he had made expressly to challenge: audiences would instantly recognise it, and inevitably make comparisons. Having been hurtfully dismissed as a spent compositional force, his response was to stake his reputation on this work. It's only conjecture, but if that was the case, then I take my hat off to him! 

The order of events is: 

Introduction (9 bars) - V1 - Theme (!) - V2 to V24 - Coda 

An underlying pattern, mimicking the traditional three-movement form, provides that “concerto” feeling: 

“First Movement” The introduction through to V5, predominantly taut, sparkling and flamboyant, form a “first subject”. V6, more contemplative, stands for the “second subject”, and brings the first full-stop. The generally more belligerent V7 to V10, dominated by the baleful tones of the Dies Irae (explicitly stated only in V7 and V10), make our “development section”. Spine-tingling tremolandos usher in V11, a florid “cadenza” ending in another full-stop. V12 to V15 act the part of “recapitulation”, starting quietly and becoming more excitable (V13 is a ferocious march). 

“Second Movement” V16 rocks gently, featuring tender solos from oboe, horn and violin. V17, with the piano vamping deep down, builds expectancy, preparing for the master-stroke of the justly famous “Eighteenth Variation”. This musical miracle forcefully reminds me that here's Rachmaninov, who absolutely lived and breathed melody, writing his undisputed masterpiece (probably!), using somebody else's tune. Yet, when asked what most typifies “Rachmaninov”, 99% of folk would immediately point to this V18! But, they're right. It's like those cinematographic “digital dissolves”: at what point does it stop being “X” and start to be “Y”? This has crossed from “Paganini arr. Rachmaninov” into pure, utterly undiluted “Rachmaninov” - an astonishing achievement. 

“Third Movement” Another full-stop, and we're into V19 to V24 (plus coda), representing the “finale” which simply whizzes by like some sword-fight, bristling with sharp chords, piano glistening and flashing in spectacular runs, with tense hesitations and huge crescendi, all pointing inexorably to a sensational climax. Like the dragon about to cop it from St. George, the Dies Irae rears up menacingly . . . the sword swings aloft, and the dragon is felled - by the gentlest prod of our hero's fingers! We all know it's coming, but the joke - a real poke in the eye of his critics - never palls, does it? 

I don't know about you, but even after years of familiarity, I still find myself counting the variations and managing to end up with a total of 28, or even 30. Such is the genius of the man who so skilfully and bewitchingly blended this matchless “rhapsody”. 

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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