Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, (Russian: Рапсодия на тему Паганини, Rapsodiya na temu Paganini) is a concertante work written by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is written for solo piano and symphony orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto. The work was written at his Villa, the Villa Senar, in Switzerland, according to the score, from July 3 to August 18, 1934. Rachmaninoff himself, a noted interpreter of his own works, played the solo piano part at the piece's premiere at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 7, 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first recording, on December 24, 1934, at RCA Victor's Trinity Church Studio in Camden, New Jersey.


The piece is scored for solo piano and the following romantic period orchestra:[1] piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B♭, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, harp and strings.


The piece is a set of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin, which has inspired works by several composers. The whole composition would take about 22-24 minutes to perform. All variations are in A minor except where noted.

Although Rachmaninoff's work is performed in one stretch without breaks, it can be divided into three sections, corresponding to the three movements of a concerto: up to variation 10 corresponds to the first movement, variations 11 to 18 are the equivalent of a slow movement, and the remaining variations make a finale.[2]


After a brief introduction, the first variation is played before the theme.[3] Paganini's theme is stated on strings with the piano picking out salient notes, after the first variation. Rachmaninoff likely got the idea of having a variation before the theme from the finale of Beethoven's Eroica symphony.[4] Variations II to VI recombine elements of the theme. The pauses and rhetorical flourishes for the piano in variation VI herald a change of tempo and tone. The piano next gravely intones the Dies Irae, the "day of wrath" plainchant from the medieval Mass of the Dead, while the orchestra accompanies with a slower version of the opening motif of the Paganini theme. The piece is one of several by Rachmaninoff to quote the Dies Irae plainchant melody.[5]

Inversion of the melody

The slow eighteenth variation is by far the best known, and it is often included on classical music compilations without the rest of the work. It is based on an inversion of the melody of Paganini's theme. In other words, the A minor Paganini theme is played "upside down" in D-flat major. Rachmaninoff himself recognized the appeal of this variation, saying "This one, is for my agent."[4]

The 24th and last variation of the Rhapsody presents considerable technical difficulty for the pianist, and shortly before the Rhapsody's world première performance, Rachmaninoff confessed trepidation over his ability to play it. Upon the suggestion of his friend Benno Moiseiwitsch, Rachmaninoff broke his usual rule against drinking alcohol and had a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves. His performance was a spectacular success, and prior to every subsequent performance of the Rhapsody, he drank crème de menthe. This led to Rachmaninoff nicknaming the twenty-fourth the "Crème de Menthe Variation".[6]

Balletic interpretations

In 1939, Michel Fokine wrote to Rachmaninoff from Auckland, New Zealand, where he was touring, seeking the composer's approval to use Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for his ballet Paganini, which he had almost finished choreographing. Fokine wanted to make a minor change to the score, involving the reuse of 12 earlier measures as a more theatrically effective introduction to the 18th Variation, which he wanted to play in the key of A major, rather than D-flat major. Rachmaninoff agreed to the extra measures, although he said A major would not work and asked that the 18th Variation be played in D major, to provide greater tension. He also wondered why Niccolò Paganini had been turned into a guitar player in Fokine's scenario, but did not object.[7] Paganini was premiered in 1939 by The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. The ballet was a success, which pleased Rachmaninoff, and he wrote his Symphonic Dances in 1940 with Fokine in mind. He played the piano version for Fokine, but both died before the idea got any further.[8]

The Rhapsody has also been used for ballets by Lavrovsky (Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow, 1960), Frederick Ashton (Royal Ballet, London, 1980)[9] and Ivo van Zwieten.[10]

Selected recordings

Piano Conductor Orchestra Record Company Year of Recording Format
Sergei Rachmaninoff Leopold Stokowski Philadelphia Orchestra RCA Victor Red Seal 1934 CD[11]
Benno Moiseiwitsch Basil Cameron Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Naxos Records 1938 CD[12]
William Kapell Fritz Reiner Robin Hood Dell Orchestra RCA Victor Red Seal 1951 CD[13]
Arthur Rubinstein Fritz Reiner Chicago Symphony Orchestra RCA Victor Red Seal 1956 CD[14]
Leon Fleisher George Szell Cleveland Orchestra Sony 1957 CD[15]
Leonard Pennario Erich Leinsdorf Los Angeles Philharmonic Capitol Records 1958 LP, Rereleased on CD by Seraphim[16]
Vladimir Ashkenazy André Previn London Symphony Orchestra London Records 1971 CD[17]
Van Cliburn Kirill Kondrashin Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra RCA Victor Red Seal 1972 CD[18]
Yuja Wang Claudio Abbadio Mahler Chamber Orchestra DG 2011 CD[19]


  1. "International Music Score Library Project - Rachmaninoff:Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43". Retrieved 18 May 2014.
  2. Paul Serotsky. "Rachmaninov - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini notes". Retrieved 21 January 2007.
  3. Allmusic. "Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini". Retrieved 18 December 2008.
  4. 1 2 Steinberg, Michael. "The Concerto: a listeners guide". p. 367-370. Oxford University Press, 1998.
  5. Vincent Pallaver (February 2004). "Rachmaninoff and Dies Irae" (PDF). Retrieved 18 December 2008.
  6. Rimm, Robert (2002). The Composer-Pianists: Hamelin and the Eight. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. p. 142. ISBN 1574670727. Retrieved 2013-03-18.
  7. "Sergei Rachmaninoff". google.com.au. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  8. "DANCE - Is There a Ballet In Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances? - NYTimes.com". nytimes.com. 30 January 1994. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  9. "Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov". Answers.com. Retrieved 23 February 2015.
  10. I Feel Slovenia
  11. "Rachmaninoff Plays Rachmaninoff - The 4 Piano Concertos, Etc". RCA Victor Red Deal. Retrieved September 5, 2011.
  12. "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), for piano & orchestra in A minor, Op. 43 - Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos nos. 1 & 2; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini". Rovi Corporation. Retrieved August 29, 2011.
  13. "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), for piano & orchestra in A minor, Op. 43 - Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini". Rovi Corporation. Retrieved August 29, 2011.
  14. "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (Remastered 1999)".
  15. "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), for piano & orchestra in A minor, Op. 43 - Franck: Symphonic Variations; Rachmaninov / Fleisher, Szell". Sony Classical. Retrieved September 5, 2011.
  16. "Classical Net Review - Seraphim Reissues". Classical Net Review. Retrieved July 7, 2016.
  17. "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), for piano & orchestra in A minor, Op. 43 - Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2/Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini". Rovi Corporation. Retrieved August 29, 2011.
  18. "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Introduction and 24 Variations), for piano & orchestra in A minor, Op. 43 - Van Cliburn in Moscow". Rovi Corporation. Retrieved August 29, 2011.
  19. "Piano Concerto No.2; Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini / Yuja Wang, Abbado, Mahler Chamber Orchestra de RACHMANINOV, SERGEI, CD chez melomaan - Ref:116514833". www.cdandlp.com. Retrieved 2016-06-22.

External links

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