Today’s Song of the Day Challenge theme is “A song everyone should listen to at least once in their life”, and my pick is the magnificent classical masterpiece “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Many have heard a famous snippet of the piece, namely the beautiful 18th variation that’s been featured in numerous films, but I’m guessing relatively few know where that variation is actually from, nor have they heard the exquisite 24-minute long work in it’s entirety.
Although I love classical music dating back to the early 1700s by composers such as Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach, my personal favorite period for classical music is the late romantic and post-romantic era lasting generally from 1860-1935, especially by composers like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Three of my top 10 all-time favorite classical works – “Symphony No. 2 in E Minor”, “Piano Concerto No. 2”, and “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” – are by Rachmaninoff, making him my favorite composer.
He wrote “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” at the age of 61 while in Switzerland during the summer of 1934. It is written for solo piano and symphony orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto, but in a single movement. Although it’s performed in one stretch without breaks, it can be divided into three sections, corresponding to the three movements of a concerto: variations 1 to 10 correspond to the first movement, variations 11 to 18 are the equivalent of a slow movement, and the remaining variations make a finale.
It boggles my mind that someone could compose such gorgeous melodies, then decide upon just the right types and number of instruments to use to bring those melodies to life. And then the fact that people are able to coax those gorgeous sounds from musical instruments! It’s also amazing that Rachmaninoff could write such a beautiful work given the fact the world was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and that in Germany next door, Adolph Hitler continued to consolidate power and had already begun his 12-year-long reign of terror.
Rachmaninoff 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 very first recording of the piece was also done by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Stokowski conducting and Rachmaninoff playing piano, and released in late 1934 by the RCA Victor Red Seal label.
The slow and stunningly beautiful 18th variation is by far the best known, and is often included on classical music compilations without the rest of the work. It’s based on an inversion of the melody of Paganini’s theme, in which 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.” (Wikipedia) That variation is arguably one of the most beautiful and moving melodies ever written, and so breathtaking that it brings tears to my eyes.
The 18th variation has also been used in various movie and TV show soundtracks to different degrees, including The Story of Three Loves (1953), Somewhere in Time (1980), Dead Again (1991), Groundhog Day (1993), Ronin (1998), the 2014 documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, and a 2015 episode of the TV show The Good Wife. But the entire piece is gorgeous, and worth a careful listen.
I’ve included two videos. The first is a beautiful 2018 performance by the German Philharmonie Südwestfalen at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, Netherlands, conducted by Gerard Oskamp, with the brilliant young pianist Anna Fedorova doing a masterful job playing the challenging piano parts.
This second video is of one of the definitive performances of “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”, by the London Symphony Orchestra in 1970, conducted by André Previn and with piano by the great pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy. I have this recording on both vinyl and CD.