Sergei Rachmaninoff ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini – Variation 18’: A Heart-Warming Interlude

So like every other day of this semester I have buried myself in my work in the IC, and I’m sitting here in the silent area thinking about taking a brain break, and then thought – why not just write a blog instead! Procrastination calls – and I am most definitely answering. I know I have already done a blog on Rachmaninoff (Symphony No. 2 – check it out!), but I just love his writing so much and it’s what I have been chiefly listening to recently whilst doing my coursework.

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a concertante work (a large-scale work which uses both the symphonic and concerto forms throughout). It was written in 1934 and is scored for solo piano and a romantic symphonic orchestra. As the title suggests, this work is a set of variations, with the theme being taken from Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin. Paganini’s Caprice is a work that is simple to take and to make variants of for a number of different reasons, notably that it is in the pure key of A minor. The tonal simplicity is clear, with lots of tonic-dominant movement and the circle of fifths being used to create tonal colour. Rachmaninoff takes this main theme and pulls it apart to create a mini piano concerto-esque piece, although it’s carefree unfolding of the theme really supports it as a rhapsody. This full work is scintillating and inventive, which makes it a stand out piece for me.

Due to my own time restraints today I am only looking into one of the variations, which is by far my favourite, and also the most famous of them all – variation 18 (Andante Cantibile). I absolutely love this variation, it has everything you could possibly want in 3 minutes of music – a soloist, a romantic orchestra and a whole lot of passion. This variation is based on an inversion of the main Paganini theme (which is a crotchet based movement). With most of the variations staying in A minor, this one is played essentially upside down in Db major. Rachmaninoff spoke a lot about how this was his finest variation, stating that “this one, is for my agent.”

I am certain a lot of you lovely readers will recognise this piece when you get round to listening to it, which is the beauty of writing this blog. With the variations each seguing into one-another, the starting point of this variation is with an ascending triplet movement from the solo piano, with triplets being one of the fundamental rhythmic devices that Rachmaninoff uses throughout. The famous melody is based a semiquaver step movement, which Rachmaninoff grows into fruition throughout the variation. It isn’t until bar 50 that the orchestra enter – playing the main melodic theme that the piano just played. The piano at this point plays triplet and quaver movement with very large Db major chords (a very typical Rachmaninoff composition style). The orchestra and piano shadow each other and the climaxes are so intense and passionate that it gives me the chills every time. The ranges used in both the piano and orchestra create a very dramatic feel in these climaxes, which are also heightened by the breadth of dynamic ranges that are also applied here. This variation lasts about 3 minutes, but my goodness it’s 3 minutes well and truly spent.

The variation ends with just the piano ‘recapping’ the main theme, but marked very quiet, which creates this eerie atmosphere at the end of this piece. With both hands on the piano going into bass clef, it creates a darker tone which is just so beautiful. I remember when I re-found this work a couple of years ago and I literally felt invincible and that nothing could go wrong with music like that in the world. It is perhaps one of my all-time favourite pieces of music because it’s just so full of luscious chords, romantic strings and the ‘Rachmaninoff flair’ as I shall now refer to it as. This swooning variation takes us on a real whirlwind journey through the variation form. As you may or may not have noticed, I am a big Rachmaninoff fan, and I will (when I have more time) write a blog on all 24 variations. But for now – happy listening!

This blog is dedicated to my best friend, Chris Bell, who is one of my favourite people, like this is one of my favourite pieces. I know you love a bit of Rach, take a break and enjoy – much love x

 

Recommended Recordings 

This recording is great if you would like to watch how the music goes.

My all time favourite recording of the all the variations is by the Mariinsky Orchestra with Valery Gergiev.

This is a lovely recording of The Philadelphia Orchestra with Daniil Trifonov.