Rachmaninov (1873-1943) - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
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.
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.
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!
of events is:
(9 bars) - V1 - Theme (!) - V2 to V24 - Coda
pattern, mimicking the traditional three-movement form, provides that “concerto”
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).
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
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?
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,
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