Sergei Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

There is something refreshing about the self-assuredness of youth. It’s almost, indeed, a requirement. Evolutionarily, we were designed to reproduce young because the life span was only about 30 years. So only the strongest and most quick-witted reproduced. I think money and class were invented for everyone else. If you couldn’t compete in tests of physical prowess, you could always become so rich or politically powerful that babes would flock to you. How else can you explain the trophy wives of Henry Kissinger, Prince Charles, and Woody Allen?

I bring this up, because as the years seem to speed faster the older I get, it makes me muse on my own contributions and those of the youth of today. Recently, a study appeared in some journal of psychology stating that an active mental life plays almost as important, if not more important, role as physical exercise in keeping Alzheimer’s and senility at bay. How many people though, once they hit a certain age or certain comfort level, actually work at keeping their brains active and challenged? Is it more than just a coincidence that the ascendancy of Alzheimer’s has seemed to follow the rise of television?

So far this week I’ve written about four pieces by Rachmaninov that feature the piano. They span his life from the age of 18 when he wrote the First Piano Concerto to age 36, when he premiered his Third. He wrote the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini when he was 61, an age at which today–even with longer life–spans, many people are already sinking into stupor and senility. What’s more, the Rhapsody is arguably Rachmaninov’s most incredible work, technically and melodically, and that shows his powers were virtually undiminished, indeed, even grew more impressive with the passing years.

The Rhapsody contains 24 variations on a theme by the composer and violinist, Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840). Paganini was such a master of the violin that he was accused of having sold his soul to the devil to become so. He once wrote a solo piece in which the violinist has to play 3,000 notes in just over four minutes. And listening to Rachmaninov’s variations on theme, you might think that he was similarly possessed.

The piece is as long as his piano concertos and like them contains lush melodies and incendiary keyboard work. What’s intriguing is how he takes the theme and varies it so many different ways that you never get tired of it. He inverts it, plays it loud, plays it soft, speeds it up, slows it down, gives it to the orchestra and then back to the pianist. In the final variations, he gives it to the pianist again and again who each time plays it even faster. It becomes almost possessed and toward the end you detect a kind of Slavic or even oriental mode, which reminds me a bit of Mussorgsky. Whenever this piece comes on the radio, for it still enjoys wide popularity, I find myself stopping whatever occupied me and giving the Rhapsody my full attention. And every time I do, new things pop out that I’d missed before.

Perhaps we are like that a bit. The older I get the more I find things falling into place. What was a puzzle at 20 suddenly became clear in my forties. My sixties are looming.  Check back in 20 years and I’ll tell you whether my mind is still as spry as it feels today.

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