Best Classical Music

18th Variation by Rachmaninoff from Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini (piano solo)

18th Variation by Rachmaninoff from Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini (piano solo arr.) – Katalin Zsubrits, piano. Sheet music download from our Library.

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 for piano and orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto, all in a single movement. Rachmaninoff wrote the work at his summer home, the Villa Senar in Switzerland, according to the score, from 3 July to 18 August 1934.

Rachmaninoff himself, a noted interpreter of his own works, played the piano part at the piece’s premiere on 7 November 1934, at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Maryland, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first recording, on 24 December 1934, at RCA Victor’s Trinity Church Studio in Camden, New Jersey.

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 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.

The slow 18th 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.”

The 18th variation, by far the most popular, has been used in various movie and TV show soundtracks to different degrees. This includes: The Story of Three Loves (1953) Somewhere in Time (1980 film) Singapore Sling (1990 film) Dead Again (1991) Groundhog Day (1993 film) Ronin (1998 film) The Byron James Story (2010 TV movie documentary) Nikolina and Tomislav (2013 short) Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory (2014 documentary) The Good Wife (2015) The pop song “If I Had You” by The Korgis uses the melody fragment from the 18th variation.

The video game Gran Turismo 6 uses it as the intro theme.

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George Gershwin at the Piano “Oh, lady be good”

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    George Gershwin at the Piano “Oh, lady be good” with sheet music

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    “Oh, Lady Be Good!” is a 1924 song by George and Ira Gershwin. It was introduced by Walter Catlett in the Broadway musical Lady, Be Good! written by Guy Bolton, Fred Thompson, and the Gershwin brothers and starring Fred and Adele Astaire. The song was also performed by the chorus in the film Lady Be Good (1941), although the film is unrelated to the musical.

    Recordings in 1925 were by Paul Whiteman, Carl Fenton, and Cliff Edwards. A 1947 recording of the song became a hit for Ella Fitzgerald, notable for her scat solo. For her album Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook (1959), it was sung as a ballad arranged by Nelson Riddle.

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    “When Lester Young played on the second chorus, the jazz world was introduced to another way of playing the tenor saxophone … Jazz would never be the same.”
    – Chris Tyle

    As improvisational vehicles, many songs could not endure the transition from the loose Dixieland style of the “Roaring Twenties” to the smooth, swing sound of the 1930’s. They were dropped from jazz musicians’ catalogs, performances, and recordings and relegated to period collections and specialty bands.

    There are, however, a handful of songs written in the mid-twenties or earlier that have persisted as the topmost jazz standards: WC Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” (1914); the Ken Casey, Maceo Pinkard, Ben Bernie composition “Sweet Georgia Brown” (1925); and George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” (1924) and “Oh, Lady Be Good” (1924).

    Walter Catlett introduced “Oh, Lady Be Good!” on the stage of the Liberty Theater December 1st 1924. The song was included in the Broadway Musical Lady, Be Good! a popular show that would run for 330 performances. The show starred Fred and Adele Astaire, Walter Catlett, Alan Edwards, Jayne Auburn, Kathlene Martyn, and Cliff Edwards. It opened to generally favorable reviews, with the critics raving about the Astaires’ footwork and the “jazzy” Gershwin score.

    In 1925 “Oh, Lady Be Good!” went on to become a pop chart hit three times with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (1925, instrumental, #2) Carl Fenton and his Orchestra (1925, instrumental, #9) Cliff Edwards (1925, #13)

    Lady Be Good was one of several shows in 1924 that represented a significant departure from the romantic operetta style. According to Edward Jablonski’s book Gershwin: A Biography, these pioneering productions were “… brittle in tone, ‘smart,’ characterized by athletic dances, tongue-in-cheek love songs”; in other words, forerunners of the modern musical comedy.

    “Oh, Lady Be Good!” was one of a dozen songs in the all-Gershwin Broadway score. Also becoming hits were “So Am I,” “Little Jazz Bird,” “The Half of It, Dearie, Blues,” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” Lady Be Good was also a turning point in the career of Cliff Edwards. Edwards’ ukulele rendition of “Fascinating Rhythm” stole the show and would prove to be the beginning of a string of Broadway appearances for him.