Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, orchestra bells, snare drum, triangle), harp, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 12, 1942, with soloist Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bruno Walter conducting
Rachmaninoff summed up his life as a composer shortly before his death (in Beverly Hills, his final home): “In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, or Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music.... I have been strongly influenced by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov; but I have never, to the best of my knowledge, imitated anyone. What I try to do when writing down my music, is to make it say simply and directly that which is in my heart when I am composing. If there is love there, or bitterness, or sadness, or religion, these moods become part of my music, and it becomes either beautiful or bitter or sad or religious.”
Withal, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is one of his least sentimental pieces – with the exception of that swooning 18th variation, which is really a tour de force of variation style, in which the minor-key Paganini theme is inverted to become a major-key, inescapably Russian theme.
The score was written in 1934, by which time Rachmaninoff could look back on three decades of fame as, above all, a virtuoso pianist: a celebrated performer not only of his own works but of the solo piano music of Beethoven and Chopin, and as the keyboard half of recital partnerships with distinguished violinists, chief among them Fritz Kreisler.
His own music had by the early 1930s taken a turn toward a leaner and meaner style from that of the sprawling, yearning pre-World War I scores on which his reputation, for good or ill, as a composer rested. In the later works, beginning with the Fourth Piano Concerto, continuing with the choral Three Russian Songs, Op. 41, the Corelli Variations for solo piano, Op. 42, and culminating with the present Rhapsody, the level of dissonance is higher, while rhythms are more angular than in the past.
The Rhapsody - actually, there is nothing rhapsodic about its tightly focused structure - comprises an introduction followed by 24 variations on the last of Niccolò Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin (a set of variations in itself). The theme was a favorite subject of 19th-century composers for large-scale variations works, among them Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms. But Rachmaninoff had his own, highly original thoughts on the subject, his grandest inspiration being the combining of the theme by the “devilish” violinist with the hellish medieval liturgical Dies irae theme, which is heard in the 7th, 10th, and 24th variations.
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.