Program Notes
mar 6, 7, 8
n the late 1920s Prokofiev was living in Paris and
working on
The Prodigal Son
, a ballet commissioned for
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, when one day he wrote with
excitement in his diary: “Then an idea came to me, one-
two-three, just like that! I could put together a symphony
Sergei Prokofiev
Born:
April 23, 1891, Sontsovka
Died:
March 5, 1953, Moscow
Symphony No. 4 in C major, Opus 112
(1947 revision)
i
the 20th century by Witold Lutoslawksi, Boris Blacher
and George Rochberg. And there may be more to come.
After considering several titles for his new work, the
composer settled on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,
a title that places the focus on melody and somewhat
disguises the ingenious variation-technique at the center
of this music. The first performance, with the composer
as soloist, took place in Baltimore on November 7, 1934,
with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia
Orchestra. Pleased and somewhat surprised by the work’s
reception, Rachmaninoff observed dryly: “It somehow
looks suspicious that the Rhapsody has had such an
immediate success with everybody.”
bravura solos, brilliant contrasts
The Rhapsody has a surprising beginning: a brief
orchestral flourish containing hints of the theme leads to
the first variation, which is presented
before
the theme
itself is heard. This gruff and hard-edged variation, which
Rachmaninoff marks
Precedente
, is in fact the bass line
for Paganini’s theme, which is then presented in its
original form by both violin sections in unison. Some
of the variations last a matter of minutes, while others
whip past almost before we know it (several are as short
as 19 seconds). The 24 variations contrast sharply in
both character and tempo, and the fun of this music lies
not just in the bravura writing for piano but in hearing
Paganini’s theme sound so different in each variation.
In three of them, Rachmaninoff incorporates the old
plainsong tune
Dies Irae
(Day of Wrath) used by Berlioz,
Saint-Saëns and many others, including Rachmaninoff,
for whom this grim theme was a virtual obsession. Here
it appears in the piano part in the seventh and tenth
variations, and eventually it drives the work to its climax.
Perhaps the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s variations,
though, is the 18th, in which Paganini’s theme is inverted
and transformed into a moonlit lovesong. The piano
states this variation in its simplest form, and then strings
take it up and turn it into a soaring nocturne. The 18th
variation has haunted many Hollywood composers, and
Rachmaninoff himself noted wryly that he had written it
specifically as a gift “for my agent.”
Fromhere on, the tempo picks up, and the final six
variations accelerate to a monumental climax. The
excitement builds, the
Dies Irae
is stamped out by the full
orchestra, and suddenly, like a puff of smoke, the Rhapsody
vanishes before us on two quick strokes of sound.
Instrumentation:
solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes,
English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets,
3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bells, cymbals, bass drum,
snare drum, triangle, harp and strings
Rachmaninoff at Senar, the Lake Lucerne villa where he
composed the Paganini Variations.
34
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