Watch “Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on theme of Paganini, op. 43 – Valentina Lisitsa, piano” on YouTube

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Paganini’s theme

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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, albeit in a single movement. The work was written at his summer home, 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 scored for solo piano and the following romantic period orchestra:[1] piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in B♭, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, glockenspiel, harp and strings.


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 takes about 22–24 minutes to perform. All variations are in A minorexcept where noted.

Section 1:

Introduction: Allegro vivace

Variation 1: (Precedente)

Theme: 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

Section 2:

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♭minor)

Variation 17: (Allegretto) (B♭minor)

Variation 18: Andante cantabile (D♭ major)

Section 3:

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 (A minor → A major)

Although Rachmaninoff’s work is performed in one stretch without breaks, it can be divided into three sections, as shown above. These correspond 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.[2]


After a brief introduction, the first variation is played before the theme.[3]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 Eroicasymphony.[4] Variations II to VI recombine elements of the theme. The pauses and rhetorical flourishes for the piano in variation VI 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.[5]

Inversion of the melody

The slow eighteenth variation is by far the best 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 literally played “upside down” in D♭major, with a few other changes. Rachmaninoff himself recognized the appeal of this variation, saying “This one, is for my agent.”[4]
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”.[6]

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 Paganinifor 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♭ 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.[7]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.[8]
The Rhapsody has also been used for ballets by Lavrovsky (Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow, 1960), Frederick Ashton(Royal Ballet, London, 1980)[9] and Ivo van Zwieten.[10]

Selected recordings

External audio You may listen to Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini played by Sergei Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1934 here on archive.orgPianoConductorOrchestraRecord CompanyYear of RecordingFormatSergei RachmaninoffLeopold StokowskiPhiladelphia OrchestraRCA Victor Red Seal1934CD[11]Benno MoiseiwitschBasil CameronLiverpool Philharmonic OrchestraNaxos Records1938CD[12]William KapellFritz ReinerRobin Hood Dell OrchestraRCA Victor Red Seal1951CD[13]Arthur Rubinstein

2 responses to “Watch “Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on theme of Paganini, op. 43 – Valentina Lisitsa, piano” on YouTube

  1. My sister played Rachmaninoff as a teen. I loved the intensity! She never enjoyed performance, but loves music!

    Liked by 1 person

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