The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (Russian: Рапсодия на тему Паганини, Rapsodiya na temu Paganini) in A minor, opus 43, is a concertante work (20 to 25 minutes in length), written by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is written for solo piano and symphony orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto. The work was written at Villa Senar, 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.
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. 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: 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 11 corresponds to the first movement, variations 12 to 18 are the equivalent of a slow movement, and the remaining variations make a finale.
After a brief introduction, the first variation is played before the theme. 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. 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.
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."
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. 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 he died before the idea got any further.
The Rhapsody has also been used for ballets by Lavrovsky (Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow, 1960), Frederick Ashton (Royal Ballet, London, 1980) and Ivo van Zwieten.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff, pianist, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, recorded in 1934 (world premiere recording).
- Benno Moiseiwitsch, pianist, with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Basil Cameron, recorded in 1938.
- William Kapell, pianist, with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner, recorded in 1951.
- Arthur Rubinstein, pianist, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fritz Reiner, recorded in 1956.
- Leon Fleisher, pianist, with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell, recorded in 1956 at Severance Hall, Cleveland.
- Vladimir Ashkenazy, pianist, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Previn, recorded in 1972.
- Van Cliburn, pianist, with the Moscow Philarmonic Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin, recorded in 1972.