Rhapsody on a theme by paganini

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, (Russian: Рапсодия на тему Паганини, Rapsodiya na temu Paganini) is a concertante work written by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is written for solo piano and symphony orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto. The work was written at his Villa, the Villa Senar, in Switzerland, according to the score, from July 3 to August 18, 1934. Rachmaninoff himself, a noted interpreter of his own works, played the solo piano part at the piece's premiere at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 7, 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first recording, on December 24, 1934, at RCA Victor's Trinity Church Studio in Camden, New Jersey.


The piece is a set of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini's Caprices for solo violin, which has inspired works by several composers. The whole composition would take approximately 25 minutes to perform. All variations are in A minor except where noted.

  • Introduction: Allegro vivace
  • Variation I (Precedente)
  • Tema: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 2: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 3: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 4: Più vivo
  • Variation 5: Tempo precedente
  • Variation 6: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 7: Meno mosso, a tempo moderato
  • Variation 8: Tempo I
  • Variation 9: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 10: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 11: Moderato
  • Variation 12: Tempo di minuetto (D minor)
  • Variation 13: Allegro (D minor)
  • Variation 14: L'istesso tempo (F major)
  • Variation 15: Più vivo scherzando (F major)
  • Variation 16: Allegretto (B flat minor)
  • Variation 17: (Allegretto) (B flat minor)
  • Variation 18: Andante cantabile (D flat major)
  • Variation 19: A tempo vivace
  • Variation 20: Un poco più vivo
  • Variation 21: Un poco più vivo
  • Variation 22: Marziale. Un poco più vivo (Alla breve)
  • Variation 23: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation 24: A tempo un poco meno mosso

Although Rachmaninoff's work is performed in one stretch without breaks, it can be divided into three sections, corresponding to the three movements of a concerto: up to variation 10 corresponds to the first movement, variations 11 to 18 are the equivalent of a slow movement, and the remaining variations make a finale.[1]


After a brief introduction, the first variation is played before the theme.[2] Paganini's theme is stated on strings with the piano picking out salient notes, after the first variation. Rachmaninoff likely got the idea of having a variation before the theme from the finale of Beethoven's Eroica symphony.[3] Variations II to VI recombine elements of the theme. The pauses and rhetorical flourishes for the piano in variation VII herald a change of tempo and tone. The piano next gravely intones the Dies Irae, the "day of wrath" plainchant from the medieval Mass of the Dead, while the orchestra accompanies with a slower version of the opening motif of the Paganini theme. The piece is one of several by Rachmaninoff to quote the Dies Irae plainchant melody.[4]

The slow eighteenth variation is by far the most well-known, and it is often included on classical music compilations without the rest of the work. It is based on an inversion of the melody of Paganini's theme. In other words, the A minor Paganini theme is played "upside down" in D flat major. Rachmaninoff himself recognized the appeal of this variation, saying "This one, is for my agent."[3]

The 24th and last variation of the Rhapsody presents considerable technical difficulty for the pianist, and shortly before the Rhapsody's world première performance, Rachmaninoff confessed trepidation over his ability to play it. Upon the suggestion of his friend Benno Moiseiwitsch, Rachmaninoff broke his usual rule against drinking alcohol and had a glass of crème de menthe to steady his nerves. His performance was a spectacular success, and prior to every subsequent performance of the Rhapsody, he drank crème de menthe. This led to Rachmaninoff nicknaming the twenty-fourth the "Crème de Menthe Variation".[5]

Balletic interpretations

In 1939, Michel Fokine wrote to Rachmaninoff from Auckland, New Zealand, where he was touring, seeking the composer's approval to use Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for his ballet Paganini, which he had almost finished choreographing. Fokine wanted to make a minor change to the score, involving the reuse of 12 earlier measures as a more theatrically effective introduction to the 18th Variation, which he wanted to play in the key of A major, rather than D flat major. Rachmaninoff agreed to the extra measures, although he said A major would not work and asked that the 18th Variation be played in D major, to provide greater tension. He also wondered why Niccolò Paganini had been turned into a guitar player in Fokine's scenario, but did not object.[6] Paganini was premiered in 1939 by The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. The ballet was a success, which pleased Rachmaninoff, and he wrote his Symphonic Dances in 1940 with Fokine in mind. He played the piano version for Fokine, but both died before the idea got any further.[7]

The Rhapsody has also been used for ballets by Lavrovsky (Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow, 1960), Frederick Ashton (Royal Ballet, London, 1980)[8] and Ivo van Zwieten.[9]

Selected recordings

Piano Conductor Orchestra Record Company Year of Recording Format
Sergei Rachmaninoff Leopold Stokowski Philadelphia Orchestra RCA Red Seal 1934 CD[10]
Benno Moiseiwitsch Basil Cameron Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra Naxos Records 1938 CD[11]
William Kapell Fritz Reiner Robin Hood Dell Orchestra RCA Red Seal 1951 CD[12]
Arthur Rubinstein Fritz Reiner Chicago Symphony Orchestra RCA Red Seal 1956 CD[13]
Leon Fleisher George Szell Cleveland Orchestra Sony 1957 CD[14]
Vladimir Ashkenazy André Previn London Symphony Orchestra London Records 1971 CD[15]
Van Cliburn Kirill Kondrashin Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra RCA 1972 CD[16]


External links

  • Rachmaninoff's Works for Piano and Orchestra An analysis of Rachmaninoff's Works for Piano and Orchestra including the Piano Concertos and the Paganini Rhapsody
  • RealNetworks audio player) file discussing the piece)
  • Programme notes from classicalnotes.co.uk
  • MIDI file for 18th Variation
  • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.