Devilishly difficult variations tinged with melancholy.
The natural sound world (the harmonic series) is made up of fundamentals and fifths, meaning that the frequency of any note also contains the frequency of the note a fifth above it. Composers have exploited this phenomenon to write tunes on which to build variations. Beethoven did so in the finale of his “Eroica” Symphony, retooling a theme he had already used in a piano work and in ballet music for “The Creatures of Prometheus”.
Niccolò Paganini followed suit with his Caprice No. 24 in A minor (1817), widely considered one of the most difficult pieces ever written for solo violin. It is this work that Brahms took as the basis for his Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1863) and Rachmaninoff for his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934).
Paganini was said to have made a pact with the devil (an early example of fake news put about to explain his phenomenal violin technique). In his own Variations, Rachmaninoff exploited Paganini’s devilish reputation and, for good measure, added an even older theme – the Dies irae – with the comment “All the variations on Dies irae represent the evil spirit.” Rachmaninoff had already used this melody in several compositions, notably The Isle of the Dead.
The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a technically dazzling and witty dialogue between soloist and orchestra written for the composer himself to play. It was first performed by Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, who then recorded the work on 24 December 1934. That recording is still available.
A few years later, the Russian choreographer Michel Fokine asked Rachmaninoff for a ballet score and the composer suggested using Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, whose episodic structure suited individual dances. To that end, Rachmaninoff wrote a scenario for the ballet based on the imaginary story of Paganini making a pact with the devil. A version was eventually performed in London in 1939.
Stravinsky once described Rachmaninoff as a “six and a half foot scowl”, owing to his forbidding appearance and melancholic nature. Yet his music belies any suggestion of coldness or lack of passion. At the heart of the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is romantic love and reminiscence. Listen to Variation 12 for a nostalgic glimpse of what the composer lost when he left revolutionary Russia. And try not to shed a tear or two at the disturbing magic of Variation 18, which emerges from the gloom of Variation 17 like sunlight after rain.
In 2015, Daniil Trifonov recorded the Rhapsody with today’s Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. There may be comparable recordings, but there is none better.