Sergei Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Variation 18)
Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a concertante work (a large-scale work which uses both the symphonic and concerto forms throughout). It was composed in 1934, and is scored for solo piano and a full Romantic symphonic orchestra. As the title suggests, the work is a set of variations – 24 to be exact – with the original theme being taken from Niccolò Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 for solo violin.
Paganini’s Caprice is in A minor, with its tonality being clear as Paganini moves through the circle of fifths. This makes it a prime work to create variations from. Rachmaninov takes this main A minor theme, and creates a mini piano concerto-esque work that pushes the boundaries of different genres such as the concerto and theme and variations.
The eighteenth variation is the most famous of the whole work, with its luscious romantic flair and reliance on the concerto form. Its melody is based on an inversion of the original Paganini theme (which is shown in crotchet based movement). With many of the variations staying in the home key of A minor, No.18 varies and is performed in Db major. Rachmaninov himself spoke at length about No.18 being his finest variation, stating that “This one, is for my agent.”
With many of the variations seguing into one another, the starting point of No. 18 is with a soft ascending triplet movement from the piano. Triplets are at the heart of the melodic content of this movement, with them becoming fundamental through both the soloist and the orchestra’s music. The recognisable melody is based on a semiquaver step movement, which Rachmaninov develops into musical fruition throughout the movement.
Once the piano and orchestra become intertwined the soloist is playing triplet and quaver movements around large Db major chords. Similarly to a Romantic concerto, the intensity between the soloist and orchestra explodes with colour in the climaxes. The ranges used across the ensemble enable the drama to be heightened, which is what No.18 thrives on. The variation ends with just the piano recapping the main theme, but marked very quiet, which creates an eerie atmosphere at the end of this variation.