Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in A Minor, op.43

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            Those who create art, whether in the performing arts or in the visual arts, inevitably find their personal “niche” in matters of style.  And it is of little consequence whether or not their artistic orientation is a conscious personal choice, or one seemingly imposed by their audiences and by professional critics.   Simply put, there are artists whose voice naturally is to work within tradition and commonly-understood artistic language; they strive to develop that tradition to new levels of meaning through their own talent and personal vision.   Others make a total commitment to artistic truth arrived at through new voices, new styles, new languages.   Every museum and gallery of art, and every concert hall is testimony to this essential dichotomy.   And it must be admitted, that there is a universal prejudice among intellectuals—especially those who subconsciously view the arts as they do technology—that the new is necessary the good.   The latest styles are more sophisticated, hence more relevant, and old styles should be left with the dead artists that created them.  This popular view was dominant among the cognoscenti during most of the twentieth century, but is beginning to moderate, as a more liberal acceptance of diverse artistic styles now is more common than previously—in all the arts.

            Like J. S. Bach, who upon his death was looked upon as a more or less old fuddy-duddy (now we know better, of course), Rachmaninoff has borne his share of criticism for having composed in a hopelessly old-fashioned style, long after its relevance.  His compositions are the last major representatives of vivid Russian Romanticism—long after that style was presumed dead and buried.  Yet, like Bach, his musical genius, his talent, and his strong belief in the validity of his art all led him to create a legacy that took “old-fashioned-style” to a natural and valid high point of achievement.  While a child of the nineteenth century, he died almost at the midpoint of the twentieth, secure in his success, and secure in the world’s enduring appreciation of his “dated” style.

            The composer was a virtuoso pianist and his writing for the solo piano emanates from a mastery of the almost limitless figurations possible for the instrument.   He began his attempts at composing relatively early, even sketching out plans for a piano concerto when he was sixteen (it never materialized).  But, he made rapid progress, and at the age of eighteen, he completed his first piano concerto in the summer after his graduation from the Moscow Conservatory.  That autumn saw the completion of his ubiquitous Prelude in C# Minor (a piece whose popularity came to haunt him).  Of his many compositions for piano, there are four piano concertos and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which, of course, is nominally a piano concerto.

            The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was composed during the summer of 1934, while the composer and his wife were in residence at their villa on Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland.  He had built the residence somewhat to remind him of, and to replace, his family estate in Russia, confiscated and destroyed by the Revolution.  They lived there until their emigration to California in 1939.   Rachmaninoff had composed variations for piano before.  The Variations on a Theme of Chopin dates from 1902-3, and more notably, the Variations on a Theme of Corelli from 1931.  It is the latter that served obviously as a kind of preparation for the Paganini variations.  Some observers have pointed out the rhythmic vitality and incisiveness of the Corelli variations as a forerunner of the composer’s late style—a turn from the lush and expansive natures of much of his earlier works.   The Paganini variations received their première in Fall 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra with the composer as soloist.

            The Rhapsody is based upon Caprice No. 24 in A Minor, Op. 1 for solo violin by the most celebrated violinist of the nineteenth century, Niccolò Paganini.  This famous little tune has served as the basis for more variations than you can imagine over the years.  Among the crowd of those who appropriated the theme were Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms—good company!  Rachmaninoff crafted his composition in the form of twenty-four variations.  After a short introduction, we hear the first variation before the theme, itself, is played.  Thereafter follows the theme and twenty-three more variations.  Most analysts purport to see the work divided roughly into three main sections, each of which can be thought of as corresponding to the usual three movements of a traditional concerto.  There is something to be said for this, but you won’t hear a pause that clearly demarks this conception.  If you’re counting, everything up to variation 11, Moderato, can be construed as the first main section.  Along the way you can hear a couple of quotations of the famous mediæval plainchant for the dead, the Dies iræ.  Rachmaninoff had a deep interest in Russian Orthodox liturgy, and this is a typical expression of that.

            The middle section begins, and after a series of variations we arrive at the famous Variation 18.  It’s one of Rachmaninoff’s most famous melodies, and its lush, rich texture is one of the icons of Russian romanticism.  While it seems like a new inspiration out of nowhere, in actuality this inspired moment stems simply from the inversion of Paganini’s theme.  The composer simply took the tripping little bit of ephemera, slowed it down, turned it upside down, cloaked it with glorious harmonies, and something for the ages resulted.  It also doesn’t hurt that its key is Db major, a key pretty far from the basic key of the piece—and that makes it seem all the more exotic and even refreshing. It’s true musical genius. 

            The remaining six variations take off in faster tempos, driving us to the end, borne by ever more impressive virtuoso figurations in the piano, reminding us of just what a towering pianist the composer was.  There are a few moments that sound like a cadenza, and then the chase resumes.  At the climax the brass loudly intones the Dies iræ one more time as the pianist pours out cascades of scales and arpeggios and then ends it all with two soft chords.

            Rachmaninoff lived nine more years, dying of cancer at his home in Beverly Hills in 1943.  In the interim he composed his Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances, and little else, owing most likely to his failing health.  But, he did concertize until one month before his death, playing his last performance in Knoxville, Tennessee.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan