Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Op. 43, Sergei Rachmaninoff

Nicolo Pagnini (1782–1840) was not only a stellar violinist but also a rock star type performer during his concertizing career which ended in 1834.  One of his claims to fame was his astonishing violin technique. He dazzled audiences with various displays not only of virtuosity and pioneering violin techniques (pizzicato with the left as well as the right hand, complicated bowings and fingerings,etc.), but also with strange tricks to mesmerize devoted fans.

It was not all talent. He suffered, or perhaps was blessed by, Ehlers Danlos syndrome which gave him extraordinary joint flexibility, allowing him to “twist his wrist in all directions” (Philip Sandblom in Creativity and Disease). For extra showmanship, at one of his concerts, he cut three of the four strings of his violin and continued his concert on a single string, flipping his arm and bow in amazing directions thanks to his special joint flexibility.

Some said that his prowess resulted from contact with the devil; some said he even had a cloven foot (again a devil reference). Goethe noted, “In Paganini the demonic can be seen very clearly, and it is this that enables him to produce his marvelous effect. ”The French critic, F. J. Fetis, echoed the sentiment saying, “the extraordinary expression of his face…Together with the sardonic smile appeared to be unmistakable evidences of a Satanic origin.”  He was from time to time called Mephistopheles, charlatan, witch’s son, and wizard. Some said he played on strings made from the intestines of one of his deceased lovers. Compounding  his  stunning musical performances and gossip was his physical image. He usually dressed in black, was delivered to many concerts in a coach drawn by four black horses, was tall and thin, likened to a cadaver, and had exceptionally long arms and fingers (probably resulting from Marfan syndrome) and jet black hair.

He was dramatic and seductive on many levels.  He cultivated these magical perceptions. Sometimes he tuned his violin a semitone higher to create brilliance, increasing the astonishing effect of his playing.

Paganini’s Twenty-four Caprices for Solo Violin became an inspirational magnet for important composers such as Brahms (Opus 35), Schumann (Opus 10 and 3), and Liszt (Six Transcendental Etudes) who were lured to try their hand at piano transcriptions. In 1934, Rachmaninoff was drawn to the well, and he selected the twenty-fourth caprice as the basis for a set of variations which many have said is his finest work for piano and orchestra. As a virtuoso pianist, it is more than likely he was acquainted with the precedents. Opus 43 was his last work in this format.

Rachmaninoff was also inclusive of elements within Paganini’s life such as his exploitative relationships with women, as well as the scary demonic association. “All the variations which have the Dies Irae theme represent the evil spirit…Paganini himself appears in the theme,” he explained.  During the nineteenth century, the somber Dies Irae theme had become not only a “death theme” but an idea which represented the supernatural. The pairing of this element with the zippy Paganini theme iterated at the beginning is a bold and significant combination. Both, however, are part of a full Paganini portrait.

Your musical itinerary is as follows:

Contrary to traditional variation format which states a theme and variations follow, Rachmaninoff’s introduction begins with an Allegro vivace which starts the variation procedure itself.  The theme is broken up into tiny points, punctuated by the pianist. It is a saucy, rhythmically active tune, highly etched with leaps and rests, carving a memorable line.

The presentation of the theme is presented next, sung in unison by violins, accompanied by the piano.

Variations 2–6 continue the variation idea in its original tempo and energy. Like the Brahms, Rachmaninoff adds ever increasing complexity to the main idea as the variations progress.

Variation 7: This interpolates the Dies Irae, Day of Judgment chant which is first stated in the piano as a sustained melody in half notes.  The speed is sharply reduced with the introduction of this dark force. Rachmaninoff wrote of this inclusion saying that “all the variations which have this liturgical statement represent the evil spirit to whom Paganini sold his soul for ‘perfection in his art and the love of a woman.’” (Letter to Fokine)

Variations 8, 9, and 10,  “are the development of this evil spirit.” (Rachmaninoff).  The theme becomes more and more overt and forceful.  Variation 10 casts the Dies Irae in bold octaves in the middle register from the soloist, marked marcato.

Variation 11 marks a sharply changed mood: aggressiveness is gone as the music enters into “the domain of love.” (Rachmaninoff) String tremolos create a shimmering curtain of sound which is completed by a mysterious passage in the harp. The meter changes to ¾. The piano has improvisatory freedom with light accompaniment.

Variation 12: Tempo di Minuetto.  The dance “introduces the presence of a woman.”

Variation 13: “the conversation between a man and a woman” (Rachmaninoff. The dance-like character of the preceding variation is augmented, but now with a more demonic character. The waltz  is marked molto marcato. Sometimes the piano emphasizes the second beat, which now along with the orchestral emphasis on the first beat creates a strong and violent sensation.

Variation 14: The waltz meter continues, but the music is heavier and more martial, “like a parade of three-footed soldiers” (Jonathan Kramer) Horns and strings start off the transformation; the texture is thick and chordal.

Variation 15: a piano solo of twenty-seven measures, similar to a cadenza.

Variations 16, 17, and 18 feature new viewpoints of the main idea, and the tempo slows down for all three. The sixteenth features solo violin with piano decorations.  The 17th starts off with low sounds from the piano which grow directly from the orchestral tremolo at the end of 16. The 18th is a romantic nocturne, based on an inversion of the main theme, which is sung first by the soloist and then by the orchestra. Rachmaninoff called this the “ultimate love episode.” The transformation of the bouncing main theme into a lyrical statement is magical and stunning. For information on how this happens see, Chien Chou “Variation Procedure in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Works” (Ph. D. dissertation, Boston University).

Variations 19–20 pay more homage to the violin inspiration with copious pizzicati and elaborate string figuration. In variation 20, the pianist’s hands play in parallel motion and the tempo accelerates in a perpetual motion style.

Variation 19: This marks a big change into the highly technical drama of the whole piece.  This variation, Rachmaninoff explained “is Paganini’s triumph with his diabolic pizzicato.” String pizzicati are imitated by the piano, often in a high register with snappy articulations.

Variations 21–22 are rapidly moving scherzi.  “It seems to me that the other personages representing the evil spirit should be drawn as caricatures in their fight for the woman and Paganini’s art.  They should also be with violins but even more fantastic and grotesque.” Variation 22 is the longest variation of the entire set: it is divided into three sections, concluding with a cadenza which is introduced by an orchestral crescendo.

Variation 23: moves back in 2/4 meter, the original marking for the Paganini theme. Rhythmic contrasts between orchestra and pianist offer not only complexity but growing intensity.

Variation 24: provides a massive capstone to the entire work.  The Dies Irae theme emerges heavily in brass and strings while piano and winds recall prominent features of the subject.  A brilliant coda reiterates fragments of the theme, compressing earlier ideas within a massive acceleration. Suddenly and surprisingly there is a drop to an unexpected soft dynamic and two cadential chords from the piano mark the ending.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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