Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 43

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born at Semyonovo, Starorusky District, Russia, on April 1, 1873, and died in Beverly Hills, California, on March 28, 1943. He composed his Paganini Rhapsody between July 3 and August 18, 1934, and on November 7 that year was the soloist at the first performance, which took place in Baltimore, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rachmaninoff was also the first pianist to play the work with the San Francisco Symphony. That was in February 1941, with Pierre Monteux conducting. The soloist in the most recent performances, in October 2010, was Kirill Gerstein, with Semyon Bychkov conducting. The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, harp, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-three minutes.

It is always a surprise to see how little music Rachmaninoff, so fecund in the first years of the century, wrote after leaving Russia with his family on December 23, 1917, never to return. That year he had completed the nine √Čtudes-Tableaux, Opus39, and a couple of small piano pieces; then there is nothing at all until 1926, the year of the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Three Russian Songs for Chorus and Orchestra. And here is all that came after: in 1931, the Variations on a Theme of Corelli and the revision of the Piano Sonata No. 2; in 1934, the Paganini Rhapsody; in 1935-36, the Symphony No. 3; in 1940, the Symphonic Dances; in 1941, the drastic revision of the Fourth Concerto.

Having left Russia, Rachmaninoff gave concerts in various Scandinavian cities, lived in Copenhagen for almost a year, then sailed for the United States. The uproar that kept the Rachmaninoffs awake on their first night in New York was not, as they feared, the sound of revolution, but celebration of the Armistice. Their first real North American home was a rented house in Menlo Park, but they eventually found it more convenient to settle in New York and Locust Point, New Jersey. In 1929, the family returned to Europe. They came back to America a decade later: first to a house at Orchard Point, Long Island, and then to Beverly Hills, where they first rented, then bought a house in 1942.

Rachmaninoff left Russia a famous composer, a highly esteemed conductor, and a distinguished (part-time) pianist. He was also a man troubled by the problem of keeping those three lives in balance. When word got out of his departure, he was offered the music directorships of the Boston and Cincinnati symphonies, but he decided not to take on the burden of such a position; indeed, he hardly ever conducted again. With a family to support and with prewar Russian music not subject to international copyright, he resigned himself to the life of a traveling piano virtuoso, full-time. That, and his sense of exile, which he felt keenly in spite of his vast popularity here and the presence in this country of good friends and colleagues, had much to do with his off-and-on retirement as a composer.

Forty-five when he arrived in America, he was also changing. The well that had produced the expansive melodies of the Second Symphony, the first three concertos, and many of the preludes and songs seemed to have dried up, though in 1934 it yielded suddenly and fantastically the wonderful eighteenth variation in the Paganini Rhapsody. (“That one is for my manager,” he said.) He needed now to make the most of a talent for economy, concentration, and precision that had been in evidence in his shorter piano pieces ever since the Preludes (Opus 23) of 1902.

Most of Rachmaninoff’s late works found few friends when they were new. To this the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was a happy exception. Audiences everywhere took to it, and it quickly became an indispensable repertory piece. Among connoisseurs and professionals it is probably the most admired of Rachmaninoff’s works. It embodies Rachmaninoff’s late style at its brilliant and witty best, it has one of the world’s irresistible melodies, and it gives the audience the satisfaction of watching a pianist work very hard and with obviously rewarding results.

Rachmaninoff begins not with Paganini’s theme but with an introduction, which is followed by Variation 1, the theme itself, Variations 2 through 24, and the coda. Rachmaninoff takes the second half of Paganini’s first measure as his launching pad, using it over eight measures to build suspense. This is followed by the first variation on a theme not yet heard. It is a skeleton, but as the variation nears its close, it begins to assume flesh. The theme proper, when it appears, is assigned to the violins, while the pianist accompanies with the skeleton.

I will not write a variation-by-variation description. But taking the Rhapsody by chapters, this is what we hear: The first five variations are increasingly excited, the sixth more relaxed. Variation 7 introduces the Dies irae from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead, which Rachmaninoff was especially fond of using in his music. Though always a secondary idea in the scheme of the piece, the Dies irae remains a presence from here on. Through Variation 10, Rachmaninoff explores everything sinister about it.

Using Variation 11 as a loose transition, Rachmaninoff begins a new phase in Variation 12, which is in a demure minuet tempo. The basic allegro is soon resumed, but the chapter is rounded off with another Variation (No. 16) in a gentler tempo and scored almost as chamber music. Variation 17 is another transition, strange and dark. The travail of this mysterious exploration is rewarded when the music emerges into the soft moonlight and inspired melody of Variation 18, which Rachmaninoff found by inverting Paganini’s theme. The orchestra wakes the dreamer, and the piano responds with a bravura variation, with dazzling left-hand pizzicatos. Variation 19 begins the final chapter, saturated in Paganiniana and spooky Dies irae atmosphere. At the summit of a climax, and one with some touches of Broadway, the pianist launches into a brief cadenza of thundering octaves. The two final variations work up tremendous excitement, and the coda, all two measures of it, is a stroke of delicious wit. I envy anyone hearing it for the first time.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Gary Graffman with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (CBS Great Performances)  |  Artur Rubinstein with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (RCA Living Stereo)

Reading: Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music, by Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leyda (Indiana University Press)  |  Rachmaninoff,by Geoffrey Norris (Oxford Master Musicians series)  |  Rachmaninov, by Patrick Piggott (Faber)