Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (Rachmaninoff)

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The rhapsody on a theme by Paganini was written by the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov in the summer of 1934 within a few weeks in his villa "Senar" on Lake Lucerne. His Opus 43 was premiered on November 7, 1934 in Baltimore with Rachmaninoff on piano and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski .

The main subjects

The piece consists of 24 variations on a theme that Niccolò Paganini himself used as the starting point for a series of variations in the last of his 24 Capricci for solo violin. This melody has repeatedly served as a template for various composers, including Johannes Brahms ( Variations on a Theme by Paganini (Brahms) ) and Franz Liszt (Grandes études de Paganini). In some variations (especially in Var. VII, X and XXIV) Rachmaninoff uses another, much older melody: the sequence " Dies irae ", once an integral part of the Latin mass for the dead . Rachmaninoff used this theme again and again in his works. So it appears z. B. in all symphonies, the symphonic dances, in the symphonic poem Die Toteninsel , in the first piano sonata.

The combination of a Paganini theme with the “Dies irae” prompts the search for a programmatic background for the work. In fact, in a letter to Mikhail Fokine , Rachmaninov commented on a program behind the music: According to legend, the great violinist sold his soul to the devil in order to achieve perfection on his instrument and the love of a woman. The "Dies irae" motif stands for the devil, the Paganini theme for the composing violinist himself. On this basis, Fokine and Rachmaninov created a ballet choreography for the rhapsody, which was also very successful.


The work begins with a short introduction , in which a dramatic increase is built up by the repetition of the main subject in ever higher octaves and augmented triads. The 1st variation follows before the theme . Only the orchestra plays here. This is followed by the theme played by the violins of the orchestra (performing Paganini). In Variation 2 , the piano takes up the theme for the first time. The following Variations 3 to 6 play around the theme in new ways, but the relatively fast tempo and the main key of A minor are retained. In Variation 7 is then - that presented Dies Irae - at a slow pace. The main motif of the theme is played in slow form by the bassoon and low strings, as well as in the form of short, quick interjections by the violins. Rachmaninoff describes it as a dialogue between the devil and Paganini. The following Variations 8 and 9 are again composed at a fast pace and more strongly influenced by the Paganini theme. Variation 10 maintains this mood, but now connects it with the Dies-Irae theme (development of evil). A new section, the love episodes , begins with the improvisational variation 11 . Variations 12, 14 and 15 bring many new elements, the theme is hardly recognizable. In variation 12, according to Rachmaninoff for the first time the woman. The 13th variation lets the theme sound in a powerful march of the whole orchestra; Rachmaninoff describes it as the woman's first conversation with Paganini. In variation 16 , the main motif is repeatedly performed melancholy and lyrically by wind instruments, piano and solo violin. In Variation 17 , the winds repeatedly play three notes from the theme, slowing down strongly. In the 18th variation , Rachmaninoff reverses the direction of movement of the theme. Standing in a pleasant D flat major, it soars to a highly romantic emotional intensity. This variation has also achieved great notoriety outside of the complete works and has also been used in many films. With Variation 19 , Rachmaninoff returns to the starting key of A minor as well as to the initially fast tempo and the Paganini theme in its original form. According to Rachmaninoff, it represents Paganini's violin art. The tempo is now increased variation by variation. Otherwise, the following variations are similar to the first six. In Variation 22 , the piece digresses once more in E flat major and even quotes the enthusiastic theme from Variation 18 before it comes to a brilliant conclusion. At the beginning of Variation 23 Paganini appears for the last time, until he is finally defeated by the devil. Shortly before the end of Variation 24 , the Dies Irae motif is shown again, after which it almost builds up into fireworks before it is then ended by two chords in pianissimo.

The sentence names of the individual variations

  • Introduction: Allegro vivace
  • Variation I: Precedente
  • Theme: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation II: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation III: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation IV: Più vivo
  • Variation V: Tempo precedente
  • Variation VI: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation VII: Meno mosso, a tempo moderato
  • Variation VIII: Tempo I
  • Variation IX: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation X: Poco marcato
  • Variation XI: Moderato
  • Variation XII: Tempo di minuetto
  • Variation XIII: Allegro
  • Variation XIV: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation XV: Più vivo scherzando
  • Variation XVI: Allegretto
  • Variation XVII: Allegretto
  • Variation XVIII: Andante cantabile
  • Variation XIX: A tempo vivace
  • Variation XX: Un poco più vivo
  • Variation XXI: Un poco più vivo
  • Variation XXII: Un poco più vivo (Alla breve)
  • Variation XXIII: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation XXIV: A tempo un poco meno mosso