Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

From Academic Kids

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is a piece of classical music for orchestra and solo piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff. According to the score, the work was written from July 3 to August 18 1934. The piece is in the key of A minor and is Rachmaninoff's opus 43.



The piece is a set of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolo Paganini's Caprices for solo violin. Several other sets of variations on this theme have been written, including pieces by Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Witold Lutosławski and Paganini himself.

Although Rachmaninoff's work is performed in one stretch with no breaks, it can been seen as being in three sections, corresponding to the three movements of a concerto: up to variation 11 corresponds to the first movement, variations 12 to 18 are the equivalent of a slow movement (with variations 14 and 15 as a sort of scherzo-interlude), and the remaining variations make a finale. Unusually, the first variation comes before the theme.

Rachmaninoff himself, a noted interpreter of his own works, played the solo piano part at the piece's premiere in Baltimore, Maryland on November 7 1934. He was accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski.

In collaboration with Rachmaninoff, the choreographer Michel Fokine created the ballet Paganini using this piece as the score. It was premiered in 1939 at Covent Garden in England.

18th variation ('Andante cantabile')

The slow eighteenth variation is by far the most prolific, and it is often included on compilation CDs or records on its own, without the rest of the work.

Interestingly, this variation on first listening does not appear to contain the original theme. Rachmaninoff inverted the score of the original theme to obtain the theme for this variation. The piece is one of several by Rachmaninoff to quote the Dies Irae plainchant melody (it has been suggested that this is a reference to the legend that Paganini sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his violin-playing skills and the love of a woman).

This variation has been featured in several movies, including:


  • Introduction: Allegro vivace - Variation I
  • Tema: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation II: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation III: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation IV: Pi vivo
  • Variation V: Tempo precedente
  • Variation VI: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation VII: Meno mosso, a tempo mederato
  • Variation VIII: Tempo I
  • Variation IX: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation X: Poco marcato
  • Variation XI: Moderato
  • Variation XII: Temp di minuetto
  • Variation XIII: Allegro
  • Variation XIV: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation XV: Pi vivo scherzando
  • Variation XVI: Allegretto
  • Variation XVII: Allegretto
  • Variation XVIII: Andante cantabile
  • Variation XIX: A tempo vivace
  • Variation XX: Un poco pi vivo
  • Variation XXI: Un poco pi vivo
  • Variation XXII: Un poco pi vivo (Alla breve)
  • Variation XXIII: L'istesso tempo
  • Variation XXIV: A tempo un poco meno mosso

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