“Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini”/”Variations on a theme of Paganini”‏

by richibi

a friend wrote me, after my most recent instalment
about musical variations
, a few very probing

I delight in sharing them



An interesting counterpoint to your comment about variations being an “intellectual” form of composition. This is
only in the best of cases — the cases that have survived to this day.

In the period in which I centred my dissertation studies — the 1820s and 1830s in Paris — the bane of reviewers’
existence was the steady stream of variations for flute, for piano, for oboe, for every conceivable instrument from
every possible performer who wanted to make his mark as a “composer” as well as an instrumentalist. It was,
shall we say, a form of composition “light,” something that minor talents could write if they weren’t capable of
writing a longer form, such as a sonata.

And yet we have impressive sets of variations in the canon today, from composers such as Bach (the Goldbergs),
Haydn (his delicious piano set in F minor), Mozart (Ah vous dirai-je, maman), Beethoven (the epic C minor
variations that you rightly point to), Schumann (Symphonic Etudes), Schubert (last movement of the Trout Quintet),
Brahms (the Haydn & Paganini sets), Liszt (his Totentanz for piano & orchestra), Tschikovsky (Variations on a
Rococco Theme for cello & orchestra), Rachmaninoff (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), Dohnanyi (Variations
on a Nursery Rhyme), and Lutoslawski (Paganini Variations for 2 Pianos).

As you can see, the most fertile source of variations has been Paganini’s 24 Caprices, to which Marc Hamelin has
added his own contirbution:

The form has come a long way …



I will gratefully accept implicit acknowledgment,
in his having confirmed me in my assertion, that
variations “in the best of cases” burn bright, are
“rendered transcendental”, timeless, much as my
friend states, “This is only in the best of cases”, he
says, dotting his contention with a peremptory
“only”, and I’m just fine with that, especially in
the light of so many, as he lists, “only{s}”

thanks, Donald

meanwhile the addition of a most recent set
of variations, this one on a theme of Paganini
played right here at the Chan Centre in
Vancouver by the pianist who composed it,
Marc-André Hamelin, delights and astounds

it is the same theme, incidentally, as in
the wondrous Rachmaninoff composition
for piano and orchestra, essentially a
piano concerto but without the pauses
that would indicate alternate movements,
a unified musical concept therefore is in
order for its name, Rachmaninoff called it
his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini“,
though he could’ve easily called it his
Variations on a Theme of Paganini“,
for being just that, a set of variations

I even called them his Variations for
years before smartening up, though I
don’t remember the exact date

rhapsody is a much more Romantic term,
you’ll consider, and if Rachmaninoff was
anything at all it was ever Romantic, despite
being nearly a century late, the Rhapsody
was written in 1934, one of many similar
musical atavisms

his Variations follow the Classical fast,
slow, fast template, in passing, variations 1
to 10 are fast, 11 to 18 slow, positively
melting, in fact, unforgettable, the rest, 19
to 24, again fast, in the very manner of the
concerto, just to confuse you, to push
the limits musically of evidently ultimately
arbitrary notions of form, another
particularly philosophical investigation


psst: here’s the original theme of Paganini,
his 24th, and last, Caprice