For Serge Rachmaninov, the Russian Revolution and his subsequent emigration in December 1917 were a traumatic experience that paralysed his creative powers for many years. His first post-emigration work, Piano Concerto no. 4, was not completed until eight years later, and in the last 25 years of his life he only wrote six new works. Then again, this was partly due to the fact that most of his time was taken up by his brilliant career as a concert pianist.
In the few works that he did write after leaving Russia, Rachmaninov never abandoned his late Romantic roots, although his music did acquire a sharper tone. A case in point is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934), one of his best-known works. Despite its title, the piece is not a free-form rhapsody but a set of variations on Paganini’s Caprice no. 24. The theme of that Caprice is particularly well suited for variations – indeed, the Caprice is itself a set of virtuoso variations on its theme. Variations on the theme were also written in their day by composers such as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Lutosławski.
In the Paganini Rhapsody, Rachmaninov shows his prowess in creating variations, and in terms of the keyboard skills required it is on a par with many a concerto. The theme does not appear until after the Introduction and Variation 1, as the violins play it in Variation 2. The work consists of no fewer than 24 closely linked variations, divided into three main sections, which has led to parallels being drawn with the traditional three-movement concerto form: an opening movement (Variations 1–10), a slow movement (11–18) and a fast finale (19–24). The equivalence is not exact, however, because Variation 7 in the middle of the first fast section is slow, and there similarly are faster variations in the ‘slow movement’. In Variation 7, Rachmaninov introduces his personal signature motif, derived from the Medieval Dies irae sequence, and this recurs later in the work. The emotional core of the work is the utterly Romantic, sentimentally glowing concluding Variation of the slow section (18), where the Paganini theme appears inverted.