The Kennedy Center

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

About the Work

Sergei Rachmaninoff Composer: Sergei Rachmaninoff
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The legend of Nicolò Paganini has haunted musicians for over two centuries. Gaunt, his emaciated figure cloaked in priestly black, Paganini performed feats of wizardry on the violin that were simply unimagined until he burst upon the European concert scene in 1805. Not only were his virtuoso pyrotechnics unsurpassed, but his performance of simple melodies was of such purity and sweetness that it moved his audiences to tears. So far was he beyond the competition that he seemed almost, well, superhuman. Perhaps, the rumor spread, he had special powers, powers not of this earth. Perhaps, Faust-like, he had exchanged his soul for the mastery of his art. The legend (propagated and fostered, it is now known, by Paganini himself) had begun.

Paganini, like most virtuoso instrumentalists of the 19th century, composed much of his own music. Notable among his oeuvre are the breathtaking Caprices for Unaccompanied Violin, works so difficult that even today they are accessible only to the most highly accomplished performers. The last of the Caprices, No. 24 in A minor, served as the basis for compositions by Schumann, Liszt and Brahms, and was also the inspiration for Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Rachmaninoff's work is a series of variations on this theme, which is characterized as much by its recurrent rhythm (five short notes followed by a longer one) as by its melody. Taking his cue from the Paganini legend, Rachmaninoff combined another melody with that of the demonic violinist-the Dies irae ("Day of Wrath") from the Requiem Mass for the Dead. This ancient chant tune had long been connected not only with the Roman Catholic Church service, but also with musical works containing some diabolical element: Berlioz associated it with the witches' sabbath in his Symphonie fantastique, Liszt used it in his Totentanz ("Dance of Death"), Saint-Saëns in his Danse macabre, and Rachmaninoff himself in his earlier Isle of the Dead.

The Rhapsody, a brilliant showpiece for virtuoso pianist, is a set of 24 variations. The work begins with a brief, eight-measure introduction followed, before the theme itself is heard, by the first variation, a skeletal outline of the melody reminiscent of the pizzicato opening of the variation-finale of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony. The theme, 24 measures in length, is stated by the unison violins. The following variations fall into three groups, corresponding to the fast-slow-fast sequence of the traditional three-movement concerto. The most familiar section of the Rhapsody, and one of the great melodies in the orchestral literature, is the climax of the middle section. This variation, No. 18, actually an inversion of Paganini's theme, has a broad sweep and nobility of sentiment unsurpassed anywhere in Rachmaninoff's works.

The Rhapsody was an immediate success at its 1934 premiere, and became one of the staples of Rachmaninoff's concert tours in this country and abroad during the last decade of his life. During those final years, he returned twice more in his compositions to the Dies irae as a musical reminder of life's transience, employing it in his Third Symphony (1937) and the Symphonic Dances of 1941, his last work. The ancient melody had become for him a musical motto representing his brooding and fatalistic frame of mind. It seems therefore fitting that the Paganini Rhapsody in which it figures so prominently was the last work he played in public with orchestra, only two months before his death.