The variation: taking another composer's piece and making it your own. Most other classical forms typically are shaped by more traditional expectations, but the variation allows a certain structural breathing room, whether Mozart's Twelve Variations on Ah vous dirai-je, Maman or Ives' Variations on America. The freedom of deconstructing a piece and crafting something new without pre-established formulas has been attracting composers since the 1400s.
The variation is essentially the classical form of the modern-day remix. Musicians have always sought to reinvent the pre-existing. In both forms, composers take the overarching themes of other musicians' pieces and rework them from their own perspective. Replace the loop machines and Kaoss Pads with string and horn sections, and term-separating lines begin to blur. If variations are in fact the classical form of remixes, then Rachmaninoff very well may be the Diplo of Romanticism.
When Paganini wrote Caprice No. 24 in A minor, it is unlikely he foresaw the immense influence it would have on music. The fame of the work is matched by its equally impressive list of variations. Whether the fury unleashed by Yngwie Malmsteen or the more traditional approach by Johannes Brahms, the piece is timelessly recognizable for its melody and versatility. During a stint of summer months tucked away in his own Villa Senar, Rachmaninoff created his own take on the piece, titling it Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Rachmaninoff takes the caprice and flips it on its head, creating a concerto de force for piano. Jon Kimura Parker, the house pianist for this weekend's Nashville Symphony performance, describes the work as "the perfect piano concerto." Its technical demand appeals to veteran pianists such as Parker and weeds out those too lighthearted for the challenge; Rachmaninoff himself admitted to taking a nerve-calming shot of liquor prior to each public performance of the rhapsody.
Although categorized as a variation, the rhapsody can also be considered a concerto. With its three distinguished sections, the Rach builds his instrumental Fabergé with the utmost precision.
As expected, the first movement introduces the theme and sets precedent for the piano and strings' relationship. Both intertwine and fluctuate flawlessly in time, moving as a metronomic wave from one variation to the next. The second movement inverts the theme, transforming the previously thunderous minor-key melody into an inviting major-key reflection. The third movement makes the label of rhapsody seem like an understatement — the unpredictable and boisterous finale caps off the piece with fortissimo affirmations and blistering speed.
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