× Upcoming Events Our 2023-2024 Season Celebrating Support About the MSO Administration & Board Our Website Past Events
Rhapsody on A Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

Composer: born April 1, 1873, Semyonovo, Starorusky District, Russia; died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, CA

Work composed: Rachmaninoff wrote his Rhapsody in six weeks, from July 3 – August 18, 1934, while staying at his villa in Switzerland.

World premiere: Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra with Rachmaninoff as soloist at the Lyric Opera house in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 7, 1934

Instrumentation: solo piano, piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle, harp, and strings.

Estimated duration: 23 minutes

After he left Russia, Sergei Rachmaninoff found little time for composition. He had a family to support, and his skills as a conductor and concert pianist were more in demand, and paid far better, than composition. Consequently, Rachmaninoff wrote relatively little in the years after the Russian Revolution; instead, he toured with earlier works, like the Second and Third Piano Concertos.

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is an exception; Rachmaninoff wrote it in 1934, just seven years before his death. Based on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, this melody has inspired variations from a number of other composers, including Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Witold Lutosławski.

Audiences immediately responded to the Rhapsody’s technical virtuosity and unabashed romanticism. As the late musicologist Michael Steinberg noted, “[the Rhapsody] embodies [Rachmaninoff’s] late style at its brilliant and witty best, it has one of the world’s irresistible melodies and it gives the audiences the satisfaction of watching a pianist work very hard and with obviously rewarding results.”

Critics were far less enthusiastic: one described it as “trite to the verge of cheapness,” while another opined, “[it is] just a concert piece for the composer’s playing, and the day for that sort of thing is past.” The New Yorker critic was especially harsh, denigrating both music and audience: “The Rhapsody isn’t philosophical, significant, or even artistic. It is something for audiences.” Despite the condescending reviews, the Rhapsody became an instant hit on the concert circuit, and remains one of the most popular works for piano and orchestra.

The Rhapsody can be organized into the conventional outline of a piano concerto, with the first ten variations (some under 20 seconds) corresponding to a first movement. These ten variations stay very close to Paganini’s theme and remain in the key of A minor, each one building on the excitement and tension of its predecessor. Variation 11 transitions to the slow “second movement” (variations 12-18). In keeping with the middle movement of a concerto, the harmony shifts from A minor and wanders through several other keys until it arrives at the famous 18th variation in D-flat major, which was featured in the 1993 hit movie Groundhog Day. “This one,” Rachmaninoff shrewdly commented, “is for my agent.” While this variation seems unrelated to the fundamental melody, Rachmaninoff constructed it by simply inverting Paganini’s original theme. The final six variations make up the third movement and feature Paganini’s opening theme as the Rhapsody builds to its fiery climax.

© Elizabeth Schwartz

NOTE: These program notes are published here by the Modesto Symphony Orchestra for its patrons and other interested readers. Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author, who may be contacted at www.classicalmusicprogramnotes.com