Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

Rachmaninoff – Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

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It seems that Rachmaninov began to think about the composition of the Rhapsody around 1923. At least, in his sketchbooks one can already find elaborations on the theme of Paganini. According to the original score, the work was composed between July 3 and August 18, 1934, at Villa Senar, near Lake Lucerne, in Switzerland.

The composer felt the need to compose; he had finished the concert season and wanted to return to pure, naked compositional work. He also pushed into composition a new concert piano that the Steinway company gave Rachmaninov as a gift. He also added the great friendship he had with the pianist Horowitch, to whom he continually informed him of the state of the work, and even told him that “he had a new variation for him” [Kang].

Obviously, Rachmaninov had Horowitch in mind as the pianist who would undoubtedly play his Rhapsody. However, it was Rachmaninov himself who premiered his work on November 7, 1934, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. The work was a sudden success and was immediately incorporated into the regular repertoire.


This work is based on a theme by Paganini (1782-1840), a famous violinist and a true revolutionary in the technique of this instrument. The theme in particular is that of caprice number 24 for violin. Paganini wrote his own variations on the theme.

As an illustration, and above all to understand, Paganini’s extraordinary technique, here we have a video of Jascha Heifetz, a violin virtuoso, interpreting said whim. Originally, the caprice was for solo violin, but Schumann added the piano accompaniment that we see in the video.

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Structure. The Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, despite the name, is not a rhapsody. The term rhapsody refers to a musical work, quite frequent in Romanticism, in which various thematic parts of different character come together, giving an idea of ​​free improvisation, and with a predominance of lyricism.

However, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody belongs to the theme and variations musical form . The work is written for piano and orchestra, organized around a theme and 24 variations. Given the variety of emotional atmospheres prevailing in the work, we could interpret the term rhapsody in reference to the character of the work and not to its form. Jon Miles [Mile] relates the title of the work to the Greek rhapsodes, who were traveling reciters, similar to medieval troubadours or African griots, who narrated all kinds of stories and constituted the cultural memory of that time.

The piano as a solo instrument would play the role of rhapsode, with the help of the orchestra, taking the viewer through a whole rainbow of emotions.

Humor, enthusiasm, dramatic understanding of human solitude, ingenuity, playful mischief, surprise, verve, fatum, circumspection, mystery, solemnity, recollection, all designed with a superb orchestration, make this work one of the pinnacles of the production of Rachmaninov.

The Rhapsody can be divided into three large sections: first, from the introduction to variation 10; variations 11 and 12 constitute the transition to the second section, which goes from variation 12 to 18; and finally, variations 19 to 24 form the last section. These three sections can be associated with the three movements of a piano concerto.

Instrumentation. The instrumentation of the Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini is: 1 piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets in B flat (*), 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 3 trombones , 1 tubas, timpani, percussion (chime, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals), harp, strings.


As we said before, the Rhapsody consists of a theme and 24 variations. Very playfully, Rachmaninov does not state the theme first, but introduces the first variation before the theme. This variation is called precedent. Here is a description of the variations.


  1. All images have an associated sound file. Click on the image to listen to the music.
  2. A bold asterisk means that a term will be explained in the final glossary.

Introduction : Allegro vivace. The introduction’s mission is to create a great expectation in the listener, an expectation that will be resolved later when the main theme appears. The introduction introduces Paganini’s theme, A-C-B-A-E, written in sixteenth notes; We will call it motif X. This motif is nothing more than the minor chord (la-do-mi) in an arpeggiated form.

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

There are also unresolved seventh chords as well as parallel fifths; all of this contributes to the musical tension. What’s this unresolved chords’ thing? Seventh chords have intervals that are considered dissonant, at least in the common practice period, and it is normal for these dissonances to resolve. Rachmaninov does the following in his introduction:

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

It is clear that the introduction accumulates a lot of tension because of those chords. Compare with the following version in which those sevenths do not appear.

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

It is, without a doubt, a much weaker version, which does not create as much expectation; It is certainly not the call to arms that Rachamaninov’s version produces.

As for the parallel fifths, they are voices that are at a distance of fifth (5 notes) from each other. They have a very peculiar sound, which was considered unpleasant from the Baroque to Romanticism. Here Rachmaninov uses it without concern.

The introduction ends in measure 9 with the dominant seventh chord of the A, again with unresolved dissonances, which leaves us expectant.

Variation I (Preceding) : Allegro vivace. Rachmaninov continues his playful pixie and once again breaks the expectations he had set for us. After the tension, we expected the exposition of the subject, but it is not like that. Variation I is nothing more than a presentation of the harmonic skeleton of Paganini’s theme, with more or less unexpected entries from the instruments and with very little melodic material. Harmonically, it is an alternation between the tonic and the dominant, until measure 8, followed by a fall of fifths that is repeated twice. Here are the chords for this variation.

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

Once again, one must discover Rachmaninov’s sense of musical tension. In variation 1 the previous chords played with all the notes do not appear. I have shown the complete harmony in figure 4 rather for future reference, but Rachmaninov has the orchestra play only the root notes of each chord, that is, the first, the lowest, of each chord. Thus, the chords remain undefined when the rest of the notes are missing. The note la appears, for example, but is it that of the chord of the major, the minor, the seventh or another?

This variation was added at the last moment based on what can be deduced from Rachmaninov’s sketchbook. The composer added it, it is believed, to create a more suggestive atmosphere before the introduction of the theme.

Theme: L’istesso tempo (without varying the tempo), in A minor. The orchestra plays Paganini’s original theme and the piano accompanies it in a similar pattern to the previous variation. The theme consists of an 8-bar antecedent, followed by a 16-bar consequent.

What do these two words mean? In music, a phrase is a unit that has complete musical meaning. In our case, Paganini’s theme is made up of two sentences, the first that acts as an antecedent, or as a question if you want, and the second, the consequent, which is conclusive; it is also known as the answer. In figure 5 you have the division into antecedent and consequent of Paganini’s theme.

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

The antecedent is harmonized with a tonic-dominant alternation (grade I and grade V of the scale). The consequent follows the harmonization above, measures 9 to 24 of figure 4, although it changes some chords in the final cadence. More gossip? Tranquility, they are only technical terms, words like any other. A cadence in a series of chords that marks the end of a phrase; They serve to reinforce the conclusive meaning of the sentence.

Very subtly the piano enunciates a motif that, subjected to various melodic and rhythmic transformations, will appear very frequently. It is one of the main melodic motifs of the Rhapsody. We’ll call it Y; It is formed by a descending fourth.

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

Variation 2: L’istesso tempo. The piano takes the role of soloist and exposes the theme slightly changed. Piano writing requires the interpreter to cross his hands. The background is basically the theme of Paganini. The consequent is a succession of rises and falls in arpeggio. In both phrases the accompaniment follows the Y motif (adapting it to harmony, of course).

Variation 3 : L’istesso tempo. In variation 3 Rachmaninov begins to change the lengths of the musical phrases. The antecedent lengthens to 12 bars and the consequent to 19 (of 16 that he had before). The strings expound a motif in sixteenth notes that runs through the entire variation, sometimes alternating with the winds, on which the piano develops the variation, with longer note durations.

Variation 4 : Più alive. Here the tempo increases and the figuration (*) of the piano is made in sixteenth notes. The phrasing is different from the original theme, although many notes are common. This variation could be said to explore the grouping of notes. However, the orchestra, especially the strings and the oboe, continue to play the X motif with the original phrasing.

Variation 5 : Preceding tempo. It returns to the initial tempo. In the background, the piano elaborates Paganini’s theme based on chords in a closed position (those with the notes as close together as possible). The orchestra harmonically and rhythmically punctuates the evolutions of the piano, which are still fast. In the consequent the chords adopt more open positions. The initial theme X is cited again as well as Y, which appeared in the introduction.

Variation 6 : L’istesso tempo. In this variation Rachmaninov introduces some harmonic changes: the I does not go to the IV, but to the V, producing a prolongation of the harmony of the antecedent in that of the consequent. Various instruments in the orchestra remind us of the X motif.

Variation 7 : Meno mosso, a moderate tempo. Variation 7 represents a very important point in the work, as it introduces the theme of the Dies Irae . It is a hymn belonging to the Gregorian chant and has been used by many composers, such as Mozart or Berlioz, among others. Rachmaninov himself used it in several of his works. Here it appears as the second theme of the Rhapsody. Below is the Dies Irae,

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

Actually, Rachmaninov only uses the first 7 notes of the Dies Irae theme . The range of that set of notes is a perfect fourth, from C to F. Rachmaninov expounds the Dies Irae motif on the piano as a counterpoint to the Paganini theme, which is expounded by the orchestra, with the bassoons playing a dominant role. The orchestration is reminiscent of the cantus firmus (*) of the Middle Ages. Both motifs are treated as sequences (variations of both motifs). The violins rhythmically augmented versions of the X motif. The harmony adjusts to the presence of the new theme.

Variation 8 : Tempo I. Motif X is treated as a sequence again. The antecedent doubles its length, but the harmonic structure is preserved. Harmonic changes are introduced into the consequent; instead of the fall of fifths, ascending thirds are used (for example, if flat-re or flat-do). The consequent is longer as it contains a dialogue between the piano and the winds.

Variation 9 : L’istesso tempo. This variation presents a binary-ternary polyrhythm. As the orchestra plays triplets, the piano continues its 2/4 binary rhythm in offbeat eighth notes. The bass on the piano exhibits an ascending motif of a fifth containing a tritone. That motif runs through the entire variation. The tritone or diabolus in musica is a chord that has been considered quite dissonant. It consists of a fourth plus a half tone. The motif will be called T.

Rachmaninoff - Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Variation 18, Solo Piano

Variation 10 : L’istesso tempo. In variation 10 there has been a modulation (change of harmony) from A minor, the key in which the previous variations were, to D major. The piano again exposes the theme of the Dies Irae in octaves. The orchestra, for its part, uses the first four notes of that theme to provide the melodic support. After the exposition of the first phrase, the piano plays syncopated rhythms that give an almost jazzy flavor to this section; in fact, personally this section reminds me a lot of Gershwin’s music, especially the Rhapsody in Blue . The final part of this variation consists of a melodic development of the first four notes of the X motif.

Variation 11 : Moderate. A variation of a certain somber character, à la Chopin, in D minor. The tremolandi strings provide a sound cushion in which the piano again presents elaborations of the X motif, elaborations that are broken with markedly chromatic passages. In the next variation there will be a key change, from A minor to D minor. In this variation that change of tonality is prepared. The harmonic structure adjusts and through the melodic variation of Paganini’s motif we approach D minor. That melodic variation occurs in various groups of instruments.

Variation 12 : Tempo di minuetto (D minor). Not only does the Rachmaninov key change, but the time signature. Now the variation is written in 3/4 time. The variation is a minuet, rather slow. The orchestra plays a rhythmically augmented version of the X-motif, with very long notes, while the piano plays its part with a constant rhythmic figure, that of eighth note plus sixteenth note rest plus sixteenth note. At the beginning of the variation the first notes of the Dies Irae appear .

Variation 13 : Allegro (D minor). The orchestra plays Paganini’s original motif, conveniently adapted to 3/4 time, while the piano responds with thick chords and powerful octaves played like bells. The original length of the phrases is restored, but clearly different harmonies are used. For example, in the consequent the original fall of fifths does not appear, which adapted to D minor would be D-G-C-F-B flat-E flat, but D appears as a pedal (*) throughout the variation . Rachmaninov uses this resource to affirm the new key of D minor.

Variation 14 : L’istesso tempo (F major). This variation has a march character. The orchestra will carry the melodic weight, while the piano will accompany it using dense chords. The X motif is transformed here in a curious way. On the one hand, an inverted form is used, not strictly, and, furthermore, it appears exposed in a ternary form, with triplets.

Variation 15 : Più vivo scherzando (F major). This variation is a virtuosic scherzo (joke, in Italian), using a devilish figuration of sixteenth notes. The character of the variation is playful, mischievous, joking, crazy. The orchestra acts as a mere accompanist; here and there he cites previous motifs, such as the triplets of the previous variation.

Variation 16 : Allegretto (B flat minor). Variation 16 reinstates the 2/4 time signature and introduces the new key, B flat minor. In the background the winds play the theme of Paganini; the piano plays a countermelody, more of a harmonic fill, with the intention of accompaniment. In the consequent the strings take the melodic role.

Variation 17 : Allegretto (B flat minor). We continue in B flat minor. Again the musical phrases adopt their original lengths. This is a variation in which the piano plays a leading role. all the time The strings are trembling and the winds murmur a few notes, more like a timbre effect. The piano starts from the low register and moves through ascending fifths

Variation 18 : Andante cantabile (D flat major). This is the most famous variation of the Rhapsody. He has extreme lyricism. The theme of this variation is none other than the melodic inversion of Paganini’s theme. What is this melodic inversion? Paganini’s original theme, the X motif, has distances between successive notes. The inverted motif has exactly the same, but with the direction changed; ascending is changed to descending and vice versa. We will call an inverted motive with prime, in this case, X’. The complementarity between the two motifs X and X’ is surprising. The X motif is playful and somewhat devilish; X’ is tremendously poetic and melancholic.

Fig 09 Motivo X invertido

The variation can be divided into three sections. The first section is made up of the solo piano, which works as a background. In the second the orchestra enters, which takes the main melody and leaves the role of accompanist to the piano, which it does with a dense writing of chords in triplets. This accompaniment is based on the Y motif, which we described above. After reaching the emotional climax, in the third section the orchestra gives way to the piano again, which little by little releases the emotional tension, ending in a loser .

Variation 19 : A tempo vivace (A minor). In variation 19 we return to the key of A minor, the original of the work, and to the 2/4 time signature. There is also a change of character. We are before a living time, almost an interlude. The piano plays the entire variation in triplet arpeggios. The harmony changes; in the antecedent, the alternation of IV (tonic-dominant) is replaced by that of I-IV (tonic-subdominant).

Variation 20 : A little più alive. The orchestra, similar to variation 3, takes a 16th-note motif which, appropriately transformed, will run through the entire variation. The piano uses the same rhythmic figuration as in the minuet variation, the eighth note plus sixteenth note rest plus sixteenth note.

Variation 21 : A little più alive. Variation 21 is actually an extension of the previous one. Both are very similar in character. The piano furiously attacks triplets that start in the low register and end in the high register. The strings make occasional comments, and the horns handle the sforzandi .

Variation 22 : A little più alive (Alla breve). This variation is a march. The Y motif dominates the variation from top to bottom. The piano adopts chords with fourth and fifth intervals alone. The orchestra uses Paganini’s theme. The middle section recovers the dense writing of chords in a crescendo that ends in a melodic passage, without chords now, tremendously chromatic. In the final part Rachmaninov leaves the chromaticism; the piano plays very fast arpeggios, in imitation of the harp. Just before entering the next variation, the piano plays a cadenza -type passage .

Variation 23 : L’istesso tempo. In this variation the motif of Paganini is treated, both for the piano, at the beginning, and for the orchestra, later. Other motifs also appear, such as the Y and its inverted version Y’. The Y motif dominates the piano writing of this variation. Again, the variation ends with a short cadenza for solo piano.

Variation 24 : A tempo a little less mosso. The variation begins with fast triplets on the piano. The orchestra gradually joins in with Paganini’s theme played in triplets as well. Then comes a live più in which the piano plays Paganini’s motif while the orchestra quotes the theme from Dies Irae with the brass playing in pesante . Orchestra and piano create a tremendous climax based on a vertiginous descent from the high register to the low register and rise again… that in the end, and with a fine sense of humor, Rachmaninov, is resolved in a piano finale, calm, playing a single note: the A.


  1. In music there is a form called theme and variations . It consists of giving a theme and from it transforming it using various musical procedures. Typically, the rhythm is changed (if it is binary it becomes ternary), the harmony, the mode (from major to minor and vice versa), figuration, tempo, etc. To open the ear to this form I recommend the following works:
    1. Bach’s Goldberg Variations for harpsichord.
    2. The first movement of the sonata KV. 331, in A minor, by Mozart. It is a classic prototype of theme and variations.
    3. By the same author, by Mozart, the variations on the theme Ah, je vous dirai, maman .
    4. The slow movement of the 103rd symphony, the drum roll, by Haydn.
    5. The last movement of the heroic symphony, the third, by Beethoven.
    6. Quintet The Trout , by Schubert.
    7. Variations on a Theme by Haydn, by Brahms.
  2. transposing instruments. There are instruments that play a note written on a staff and a different one sounds. They are called transposing instruments. The transposition appears either to facilitate writing, as in the case of the double bass, or to facilitate fingering, as in the case of the clarinet family. Most of the transposing instruments are from the wind family. When we say a clarinet in B flat, we are dealing with an instrument of this type.
  3. Common practice period. Period of classical music that includes Baroque, Neoclassicism and Romanticism. It essentially corresponds to tonal music.
  4. Figuration. It is the set duration of a passage or a musical work. If it is said, for example, that the figuration of the passage is semiquavers, it means that it is written for the most part with that rhythmic figure.
  5. Cantus firmus. It is a melody, normally written with long notes, on which polyphonic melodies are incorporated, with a faster figuration. This musical form is typical of the music of the late Middle Ages.
  6. Pedal. A pedal is a note or chord that stays fixed throughout a passage and over which other chords are played.

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