Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Variation to End All Variations on a Theme by Paganini

Dear Sergei,

I have been spending quite a bit of my travel time these last few days reviewing your music. Did I ever tell you that I have a very long commute to work? Sigh, yes, but my car has a nice sound system. I say reviewing, because I have been a long time fan. My earliest forays into classical music were in the shadows of your moving concertos. I travel to Knoxville, Tennessee, each day. (That is where you performed your final concert isn't it.)

But it has not been your concertos that have enamored me of late, but that glorious rhapsody on the ever enduring theme of Paganini. Why was that simple theme such an inspiration to so many. It is hard to say?

Did you know that YouTube provides renditions of you, Sergei, playing the whole of this work in three sections?
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I guess that somehow this theme carries with it a spirit of the quintessential life flow that moves us through our various existences. It has inspired composers and in that, it has inspired all of us to life. You, of course, do not fail to remind us in places throughout your set of variations of the ever-present threat of death. A number of times I heard that fixed idea, the one you tap into throughout your many works, the dias irae theme. (I do not forget that. It is always a sub-theme isn't it. You Russians never let us forget. Remember that stirring work by Shostakovich, the 14th, that used the poetry of, among others, Rilke?
All-powerful is death.
It keeps watch
even in the hour of happiness.
At moments of higher life it suffers within us,
awaits us and thirsts for us -
and weeps within us.
No, we can't forget. It weeps within us, even during your variations on the theme by Paganini, that points us to the best of life.) And so you whisper reminders in variations 7 and 10 and, at the end. But death, though ever-present in life is not what it's about. It is just there, isn't it? And it's there with all the failures (variation 12?) and successes (variation 14?).

But it is life, full life, that continues through your rhapsodic variations on Paganini's lively theme. And what is life without love? Death is not the main sub-theme of life, but love certainly is. It must be. And you, my romantic friend, are the best one to state it fully in variation 18, and in D minor (like your most beautiful concerto and as Patrick Piggott* says--"in the key of sunset and romance").

In variation 16 you take us into a melody so delicately alluring that our tightening throats and not just our ears tell us it can be leading only one place, to the dearest recesses of the heart. So variation 16 with interwoven phrases for oboe, horn, harp, is harbinger of the wonder of love and intercourse. I enjoy the way you use this figure, here in the original A minor, shift it to B flat minor in 16, and then through variation 17 modulate to the erotic variation 18. (Listen to Part 2 above from 2:24 to the end.)

When I first listened to this rhapsody, I found variation 18 to be somewhat of a jolt. Too much, I thought. Out of character with the rest of the piece. But as I listened more, and especially in relation to the seduction of 16, I realized that the orgasmic strains were a deliberate expression of the richest of intercourse between the orchestra and piano. The beauty of description rivals that of the overture to Tristan and Isolde and it's conclusion leaves the chords that enveloped the notes of the Paganini motif inverted and panting on the staff.

I love this interpretation of the 18th variation done by Artur Rubenstein. He was a wonderful interpretor of your work, wasn't he?

So, I think of all the composers who have played with this group of notes first uttered by Paganini, it is you who have brought it to it's most full expression.

Thank you for these beauties.


*Rachmaninov Orchestral Music by Patrick Piggott (BBC Music Guides) 1974

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