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Composed: 1934

Length: c. 22 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, triangle), harp, strings, and solo piano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 12, 1942, with soloist Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bruno Walter conducting

About this Piece

Rachmaninoff summed up his life as a composer shortly before his death (in Beverly Hills, his final home): “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music.... I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; but I have never, to the best of my knowledge, imitated anyone. What I try to do, when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is one of his least sentimental pieces—with the exception of that swooning 18th variation, which is a tour de force in which the minor-key Paganini theme is inverted to become a major-key, inescapably Russian theme.

The score was written in 1934, by which time Rachmaninoff could look back on three decades of fame as a virtuoso pianist, admired for performing not only his own works but also those of Beethoven and Chopin, and alongside distinguished violinists, chief among them Fritz Kreisler.

His own music had by the early 1930s become leaner and meaner from the sprawling, yearning pre-World War I scores on which his reputation, for good or ill, rested. In the later works—beginning with the Fourth Piano Concerto, Op. 40, continuing with the Three Russian Songs, Op. 41, the Corelli Variations for solo piano, Op. 42, and culminating with the Rhapsody—the level of dissonance is higher, while rhythms are more angular than in the past.

The Rhapsody—though there is nothing rhapsodic about its tightly focused structure—comprises an introduction followed by 24 variations on the last of Nicolò Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin (a set of variations in itself). The theme was a favorite subject of 19th-century composers for large-scale variations works, among them Robert Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. Rachmaninoff applied his own, highly original thoughts on the subject, his grandest inspiration being the combining of the theme by the “devilish” violinist with the hellish medieval liturgical Dies irae theme, which is heard in the seventh, 10th, and 24th variations. —Herbert Glass