Suggested Listening: “Variation XVIII” from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov

I have returned from a four-month hiatus just in time for Groundhog Day!  (For my international readers, Groundhog Day is America’s biggest rodent-based holiday.)  To celebrate, I have selected the eighteenth variation from Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for today’s SUGGESTED LISTENING for the CLASSICAL MUSIC SKEPTIC, performed below by the ever-lovely Valentina Lisitsa (RU) on piano and the London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Francis conducting.

About the Composer:

I summed up Rachmaninov’s biography in this post from almost 2 years ago (#throwback), so today’s “about the composer” section will get a little creative.  First off, here are some hilarious pictures of the man from the incomparable blog composersdoingnormalshit.  Second, a fun fact: he lent his name to the Rachmaninoff Basin, a rare double-ringed impact basin on the surface of the planet Mercury.  (See also: the Stravinsky Crater.)

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) definitely deserves to have a celestial structure named after him: his musical achievements were astronomical.  His talent apparent from an early age, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory at 10 and graduated the Moscow Conservatory by 19.  Despite such a promising start, he suffered a horrible blow in 1897: the utter failure of his First Symphony, panned by critics at its St. Petersburg premiere.  The event shook his self-confidence, resulting in three years of depressive symptoms and crippling writer’s block.  However, he sought therapy in 1900 and by the following year he had completed his groundbreaking and widely successful Second Piano Concerto.  The year after that, he got married!  Things were really looking up.

Then came the 1915 death of his close friend Scriabin, followed by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917.  He moved his family north, seeking work in Finland and Norway, but times were tough and money was tight.  Finally, in 1918, he headed for New York, and at last his career took off as a concert pianist and conductor — but not a composer.  No longer surrounded by the rich culture of Russia — its colors, its language, its traditions and ancient heritage — he felt like he had once again lost much of his inspiration.  But in 1932 he began to spend his summers at Lake Lucerne in Switzerland (the inspiration for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata) and there — in a homey Swiss villa amidst stunning natural surroundings — is where today’s Suggested Listening was born…

About the Piece:

Composed in 1934 at Lake Lucerne, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a gripping concert piece for solo piano and orchestra.  Rachmaninov himself gave the premiere, accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Leopold Stokowski (perhaps best-known to Skeptics for his role in Disney’s Fantasia).  You can actually listen to the composer’s own performance here — TECHNOLOGY!!!  Seriously, isn’t it amazing that we live in a world where we can hear — for free, in a matter of seconds — a piece of music performed as its composer conceived it some eighty years ago?  But I digress.

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) was an Italian virtuoso violinist and composer, and the “theme of Paganini” in question is the opening of his Twenty-Fourth Caprice, a jaunty if dark and scheming work for solo violin.  The agility and spirit required to play this difficult piece have inspired numerous composers over the years to reinterpret the famous theme according to their own style.  (See also: On the art of variation: Why Paganini’s theme is so popular.)  Of the twenty-four variations (sort of like musical transformations) Rachmaninov weaves together in his Rhapsody, one of the most popular is the eighteenth.  Composed in a lighthearted major key — a far cry from the brooding A-minor of the caprice on which it is based — the variation is described in the score as andante cantabile.  Cantabile means “having a singing quality” — and can’t you hear the music just sing?  The piano soars and reminisces, lingering on leading tones, languishing among delicate dissonances.  The orchestra enters with a swelling, surging iteration of the piano’s earlier statement and grows from a velvety curtain in the background to a golden hymn of triumph.

Perhaps, now, you’re wondering what any of this has to do with Groundhog Day.  Well, it so happens that Groundhog Day is one of my very favorite movies…

At about 0:50, you hear it — Groundhog Day‘s love song, Phil’s heartfelt ode to Rita.  Phil has had an infinite number of February Seconds to perfect a piece on piano.

He chose this one.

Happy Groundhog Day, everybody!  Here’s to six more weeks of winter.

If you liked Variation XVIII from Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody, you may also enjoy…

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