Season 4 kicks off with one of the most beloved works in the orchestral repertoire. John Banther and Bill Bukowski talk about the theme's origins, melodies hidden in plain sight, moments to listen for, and what Rachmaninoff did to calm his nerves the night of the premiere!

Show Notes

A live concert performance featuring Anna Federova, the Philharmonie Südwestfalen, and conductor Gerard Oskamp

This is a wonderful performance of the Rhapsody, and the camerawork showcases just how fast her hands have to move (especially from 22:10 to the end!).



John Banther: I'm John Banther and welcome to Season Four of Classical Breakdown.

From WETA Classical in Washington, we're your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classicals, Bill Bukowski and we get into one of the most loved works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There is a lot to discover, like musical themes hidden in plain sight, how Rachmaninoff came up with that beautiful melody in the 18th Variation and what he had to do before the premier, just to calm his nerves. Plus, stay with us to the end as we read your reviews from Apple Podcasts.

This work is a favorite for so many, myself included. I got into vinyl records, Bill, in the two thousands when I was in high school and one of my first and most listened to records features this work with the Philadelphia Orchestra pianist, Van Clibur and conductor, Eugene Ormandy. I've listened to it so much, Bill. There is definitely groove wear there.


Bill: Now that's a good recording.


John Banther: And it's one that just captured me the moment I heard it. Did you have anything like this when you first experienced this piece?


Bill: I've always loved this work and I've heard so many different recordings. I think some of my favorites are probably Arthur Rubenstein and the Chicago symphony under Fritz Reiner from the 1950s. More recently, Stephen Litton and a series of live concert recordings they made, which were really, really good. And of course, there's Rachmaninoff's own with the Philadelphia orchestra, his favorite band.


John Banther: That's true. And the one we're going to be hearing in this episode is the one with the Philadelphia Orchestra, of course, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting and at the piano, it is Daniil Trifonov.


Bill: Superb recording by the way.


John Banther: Absolutely. So stay with us as we explore Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini because later in this episode, we'll learn how the 18th Variation, probably your favorite, got it's famous melody and we're also going to tell you a little story about the premiere with Rachmaninoff, you may not know. So getting into the piece here, we learned from our episode on Rachmaninoff, episode number 50, that much of his career was as a conductor and this work from 1934 is one of a handful that he wrote from 1917 until his death. So he wrote this from July to August in 1934 at his Villa in Switzerland. And it was in these summer months that he was able to compose, because otherwise he was pretty preoccupied.


Bill: Yeah, he was busy as a concert pianist. Shortly after the revolution, Rachmaninoff was, like a number of emigrants, he had to leave the country and leave everything behind and that included conducting gigs, compositions. So to support himself and his family, he had to make a living as a concert pianist. Fortunately, he was one of the greatest pianists on the planet at that time. I think his only real rival was Vladimir Horowitz.


John Banther: So I also love the surprise local connection here too, because this piece was premiered in Baltimore, Maryland that year in 1934 with the Philadelphia orchestra and Rachmaninoff at the keyboard. So, Bill, the title here, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, what is this theme of his that Rachmaninoff is using?


Bill: The theme is a very popular theme, as a matter of fact. It was the 24th from the 24 Caprices for solo violin by Nicolo Paganini and there's just something about this piece that I think maybe the mood of it or the sound of it just encapsulizes Paganini in his whole image that has come down to us over the years. The skeletal looking performer, who probably had made a deal with the devil to be able to play so well. Robert Schumann did a variation on this particular piece, Franz Liszt and of course, most famously Brahms' two books of variations on that same theme that Rachmaninoff is playing with here.


John Banther: So while this is played as one continuous piece, the 24 variations that follow after the theme here by Rachmaninoff, they naturally fall into three different sections. So the first section includes an introduction theme and variations one through 10 and Bill, this grabs you, especially me, right from the beginning with the first notes. There's so much character, there's so much color and it flies by fast, these opening variations and the theme and everything, 30 seconds or less some of these. They're very quick.


Bill: This was, I think one of the reasons why Rachmaninoff, in putting this together, opted for rhapsody rather than variation and we'll talk about that, because he wanted to grab you right from the very beginning.


John Banther: And he does. And I love how when the theme comes in and the orchestra is playing it, the piano is just plinking along, A, E, just the most basic, bare minimum outline you can have of the key here, A minor.


Bill: It's almost like he's talking with the orchestra like da, da, dada, da.


John Banther: Yes. I love that. There's a quote here from Rachmaninoff you can share with us that I think already brings to an idea. The kinds of sounds we're hearing.


Bill: " I am not a composer who produces works to the formulas of preconceived theories. Music, I have always felt should be the expression of a composer's complex personality. A composer's music should express the country of his birth, his love affairs, his religion, the books that have influenced him, the pictures he loves. It should be the sum total of a composer's experiences."


John Banther: And it sounds like when he takes all of that to heart, Bill, you get something like this.


Bill: Exactly.


John Banther: The first several variations go by in a flash. The fifth one is so interesting and I think maybe a lot of people haven't given this one too much thought because it's also rather short, but the piano and the orchestra, they're actually only really playing during each other's rest. It's so fast and there's so much happening, you don't really realize that they're playing in the windows of each other. There's a couple of notes and some winds that do some other things too, but it's like 90% they're not even playing at the same time. So even just here, you have the virtuosity of playing, but you have to have the virtuosity of playing together and locking in across a big stage, everyone playing together like that or not playing together.


Bill: Yeah. It's interesting. As you're talking about it, it's making me think. Now I want to hear it again.


John Banther: Yes. The Seventh Variation has a lot more going on as well. We've had this theme from Paganini. Now we get it in some kind of fragments played by the bassoon. It's kind of ponderous or searching. And then we get a new theme brought in on the piano, playing chords and Rachmaninoff is playing here. He is adding in Dies Irae, and it's hidden in plain sight, but maybe, Bill, first, you can remind us what is Dies Irae?


Bill: Dies Irae comes from the Catholic Requiem Mass and means Day of Wrath, quite literally. For whatever reason, this was a tune or a theme or a melody that just obsessed Rachmaninoff and it became his ghost theme. It pops up in a lot of his works. One of the fun things about listening to Rachmaninoff is listening for where the Dies Irae comes in again, because it's almost like his signature. It's like Rachmaninoff was here.


John Banther: And he hides it because you have these chords that don't exactly sound like it. But the top notes here, it's Dies Irae. And he brings it back right away with the 10th Variation. But now the Dies Irae has so much character and before, Bill, when it was hidden in plain sight in the harmony, he then hides it in plain sight in the rhythm with this American inspired rhythm. But it's still the Dias Irae. You almost never know when it's going to come back.


Bill: Yeah, it's interesting. It almost sounded like something Gershwin would write. It's also a reminder that the time that Rachmaninoff wrote this, the most popular music on the planet, was jazz.


John Banther: You hear that in this music, don't you, in that rhythm that he uses for the Dies Irae. It sounds like it comes out of some kind of Gershwin piece or from, maybe a dance club or something. So it makes the Dies Irae sound with it. It's very unexpected.


Bill: And as a musician, Rachmaninoff would've been very well aware of jazz and the idea that you mix a lot of different themes in to make it sound like an improvisation. I think that's what he's doing here.


John Banther: Oh yes. Now it might be easy for someone listening to think that, " Well, this is a concerto, right? There's a soloist and then there's an orchestra behind them." But this is different here, it's a rhapsody. So how would we describe or define that?


Bill: Well, a rhapsody is different from a concerto. A concerto is a serious piece of music. It's structured along very definite lines. Whereas, a rhapsody is, by its very nature is sort of freeing. It allows you to rhapsodize for a better word. I'm sorry that there's a better way to put that. But Rachmaninoff is being very specific when he did his... The thing to remember too about Rachmaninoff is after three symphonies and four concertos, this was the last essay that he wrote for piano and orchestra. And it's almost like he's saying to himself, " Now it's time for me to have a little fun." And he's definitely doing that in this particular work. I get this idea that he was probably sitting, as you said at his estate in Switzerland, Senar, sitting at the piano with the lake and the windows and just tootling around with this ear worm, which just so happened to be this Paganini Caprice. And then just going off on a thing, " I think I might have something here," grabbing his pen and starting to write things down.


John Banther: Your description of rhapsodic or rhapsody is great because it is one of those things where it's like, you know it when you hear it as well, you also see, well it's one continuous piece, it's free flowing, it doesn't have that structure you described about a concerto and contrasting moods, color and tonality. We've especially heard many different moods, many different colors so far, though tonality has mostly been the same. We've been in A minor up until now, I believe, through the 10th Variation. Once we get to the 11th, we get to what we call that middle section, variations 11 through 18. And it's here in this section that he starts to move away from A minor and explore some pretty distant keys. So with all this in mind, going into variation number 11, already fits into what you were just saying, Bill, about rhapsody and everything. This has a strong improvisatory noodling kind of sound, like he's seeing the lakes in the background. And it sounds like it comes from also, you can hear it coming from some of the ideas here, like an American jazz bar.


Bill: Yeah, I think of all the influences that he would've picked up in his tours, in his traveling and interacting with other musicians and other kinds of music, yet at the same time, putting it into his own art.


John Banther: And with the 12th Variation, that is when it starts to branch away from A minor and we go into to D minor. There's this very light outline of D, F and A and a pizzicato on the strings outlining D minor. But you still hear the Paganini theme coming in as even just a fragment, almost dreamlike in the oboe and then followed by the clarinet.

There's little moments like this, that just fly by where something's happening, but you don't quite catch it. But the more that you listen to this piece and listen intently, the more you pick up on little things, like a fragment of a melody here or something there or you can better hear how something develops. Now, Bill, Variation 18 is the most famous, but I bet if you went to anyone, say in a concert hall, sing the tune from Variation 18 of Rachmaninoff's rhapsody, they wouldn't know it, but they know it when they hear it. This is so popular.


Bill: Yeah, it's popped up in movie scores and TV shows and themes. It's very popular on its own, yet here it is embedded deep in this particular 25- minute work. And as he said, " This one is for my agent." He knew he had a hit on his hands.


John Banther: The thing about him in this time of his life, he's been through so much conducting, moving to a new country, a new career as really performing, he knows how to sell something. He knows when he needs to do it. But now here's the interesting thing. How does this theme relate at all to Paganini tune? It's very genius what Rachmaninoff is doing here. He's using inversion. Now we're going to get into some music theory here, but don't worry, there's not a test. It's actually not that hard. I think we're all going to get this and I'll put some more information and pictures maybe and music on the show notes page as well, but he uses inversion. So to go to a simple idea of inversion, we can think of a simple chord, like a C major chord, C E and G. That's a nice, easy chord, but now what if we take that C and we flip it up and octave higher. So now we have E G and C. We call that first inversion, for example, you can see how in a chord, you can flip things up and invert it.

But what about a melody, which we have here? Here is what is happening, because you can't just flip the music over or upside down or something like that. What Rachmaninoff does is he takes the entire theme of Paganini and inverts it. He does this by looking at Paganini's tune and he looks at the first note and the second note and how they relate to each other. We see that Paganini goes up a minor third for the second note. So Rachmaninoff goes from his first note down a minor third to his second note, going to the third note, we see that Paganini goes down a half step for that note. So what does Rachmaninoff do? He goes up a half step. Does that make sense so far?


Bill: So far I'm with you.


John Banther: Okay. So Bill, when Paganini goes down a whole step for his fourth note, Rachmaninoff would go?


Bill: A whole step up.


John Banther: Exactly. That is what inversion is. And he does it for basically the entire tune of Paganini theme. Changes the rhythm a little, although it is quite similar and you get this gorgeous melody. It's so funny because this is one of the things I love about music, in that Paganini had no idea the influence that he would have when he wrote this 24th Caprice and how much people would love it. But he also didn't realize he was also basically writing almost a mathematical formula for how to create one of the most beloved melodies that Rachmaninoff would later, as in this case, come up with.


Bill: That's right.


John Banther: I love that and this is also very romantic sounding as well. And there are so many instances where we see this same formula play out. Tchaikovsky for instance, in terms of how you repeat things. And this is where I think you're exactly right, " This is for my agent," cause it's the piano alone. Then it's the orchestra with some piano accompaniment. Then they come together the third time, even bigger, just so intertwined.


Bill: It's interesting because I'm thinking about Rachmaninoff and his music and most of his best- loved pieces, in the middle of it, there's a killer tune that is just unforgettable, like the slow movement of the Symphony Number Two, or the slow passage from another piano in orchestra work, the Concerto Number Two. And actually it was a pop singer in the 1970s, Eric Carmen, who was a big Rachmaninoff fan. And he created a couple of hits based on some Rachmaninoff tunes. And he definitely credited Rachmaninoff for the tunes because he loved his music so much.


John Banther: We're going to take a quick break, but right after that, stay with us because we'll get into a story about the premier and then the final variations of this work. Okay. Bill, we've heard some pretty intense music so far, some pretty beautiful music so far. Rachmaninoff was definitely channeling his inner Paganini when he wrote this because it's so difficult. In fact, maybe he did that too much because it was so difficult, especially these last parts here, that he was pretty nervous before the premiere. He was unsure about maybe how it would go, it was so difficult. So he did something that he basically never did and that was have a drink. He had a drink of crème de menthe to calm his nerves before the premier. And apparently it worked and it went so well, he did the same for every other performance of this rhapsody.


Bill: There's a couple of interesting things that come to mind about that was, one, apparently it was a friend his, another pianist, Benno Moiseiwitsch, who, he must have had a bottle of crème de menthe at hand. It could have been a bottle of whiskey for all we know, but that's what he had. And he said, " Drink this. It'll calm your nerves." But the interesting thing was him keeping a bottle under the piano every time he... It's a little bit like a baseball player and superstitions. You always tie your right shoe first or you always have a meal of a hot dog and a beer before the game, the same kind of thing. It's really, it's funny. And it's another way of bringing Rachmaninoff back down to earth. I love it.


John Banther: And I'm sure, he's not doing shots here next to the stage door. It's a nice sip here.


Bill: Well, and it's crème de menthe, so it's not talking really hard stuff.


John Banther: So there you go, Rachmaninoff and crème de menthe. I'll have to enjoy some of that while I listen to this piece again and you can hear why he was nervous because it's almost cruel how he goes from the 18th Variation into the 19th Variation. It already sounds way more difficult than it seems on the piano. And I mean that, for instance, when Daniil Trifonov is playing this 19th Variation, it sounds quite fine, quite easy. It sounds normal, but it takes years to be able to play so evenly and with so much finesse in bringing out every single note that you want or don't want to bring out.


Bill: And he did this on purpose. It's a little bit like waking from a dream coming from the 18th Variation and apparently Beethoven had done something similar. It's almost like it's a joke, but it's like, he's saying, " Okay, wake up time to get back down to the business of having fun. Let's go."


John Banther: I can definitely hear that. And with each couple of variations after this, I think it's 19 through 22. Each variation is a little bit faster, marked a little bit faster and faster. And when we get to the 23rd Variation with the theme returning, it's like a wild ride to the end. And also it reminds me of moments in his Symphonic Dances, which of course, comes a decade later after this. But I can really hear maybe if that's just Rachmaninoff's sound.


Bill: Yeah. And it's interesting, you mentioned the Symphonic Dances because this work that we're talking about was his last piano and orchestra piece and Symphonic Dances was his last symphonic piece and you're right. They both end the same way. It's almost like he's wrapping things up and he knows it.


John Banther: And there's a cadenza at the end of this 23rd Variation as well. And it's quite huge with the orchestra, and almost when you mentioned almost like a joke going from the 18th to the 19th, I think it's similar into the 24th in that it just goes into it.


Bill: Again, I have to listen to it again.


John Banther: And as it goes into the 24th and final variation that Dies Irae theme returns. I also get some sounds that remind me of the church bell influence of his youth as well. The end is brilliant, isn't it?


Bill: Oh, I just absolutely love it. It's so delightful. Every time I hear it puts a smile on my face.


John Banther: I love it so much because it's so hard, it's so virtuosic, it's so gorgeous in every way from beginning until now and then at the end you expect this triumphant finish and it's just kind of like, " Nah, I don't care. Nah, I don't care."


Bill: Well, it's more like wrapping it up. It's like putting a little signature or tying the bow or something like that, dum, dada, dum. It's so delightful. It never fails to put a smile on my face whenever I hear it.


John Banther: I'm the exact same way. Now, if, when you hear this variation, it's all over the place for the pianist, I also put a video on the show notes page or a link to YouTube. Anna Fedorova, she's a piano soloist and she has a lot of performances on YouTube. Great camera work at the Concertgebouw in the Netherlands. And you can just see, the hands are almost a blur, what's happening.


Bill: She's a wonderful Rachmaninoff pianist too.


John Banther: Yes. So definitely check that out. So Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, it's quite a wild ride. There are a lot of little things here that you can listen to. And the more you listen to this work, the more you'll pick up on even more things like this. Okay. So now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. What do we have, Bill?


Bill: Well, we have a note from Classical Ann who says, " Thank you again for another great season of Classical Breakdown. I especially love the episode when you and Linda Carducci were talking about Grieg's piano concerto. I think you should feature her more often. I'm looking forward to the next season and learning all about the music I love."


John Banther: Well, thank you so much Classical Ann and of course, we'll pass that onto Linda as well. She's wonderful, isn't she?


Bill: Indeed.


John Banther: So do you have anything else, Bill for Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody?


Bill: Go back and listen to it. Find your favorite recording and dive in and enjoy.


John Banther: Thank you so much, Bill.


Bill: My pleasure.


John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown. Check out the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org for more information about this episode. If you have any questions or episode ideas, send me an email at classicalbreakdown@ weta. org and if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app and tell a friend. I'm John Banther, thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music from WETA Classical.