Posts filed under Romantic Period

Rachmaninov - Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Simon Trpceski

Simon Trpceski

Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini Op 43 in A minor, is romanticism at it's best.  It is a work for solo piano and orchestra closely resembling a piano concerto.  The composer wrote it whilst in Switzerland in 1834, as a keen interpreter of his own works he played it at the premiere at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore with the Philadelphia Orchestra with whom he also made the first recording.

A variation is when a catchy tune can be pinned down and strung along by repetition and embellishment.  Variations are usually lighter in intellectual substance than a composers greatest works and could be said to be more decoration than architecture.  However some composers reach through the superficiality of the structure to find great heights, as is the case here.  

Vasily Petrenko

Vasily Petrenko

Paganini's Caprice No 24 for solo violin has been used by many composers as a theme to be varied for a whole variety reasons.  Firstly it is in the clean key of A minor, the theme begins and ends in the same key and in the middle it uses a cycle of 5ths.  The cycle of 5ths was much used by Baroque composers as it enabled them to repeat a simple theme whilst changing key each time, thereby giving Baroque music it's rich harmonic sound. Listen to Hilary Hahn playing an excerpt of the original on YouTube.    

Rachmaninov wrote the Rhapsody when his popularity was waning in the eyes of audiences and critics.  Since leaving Russia for the west he had written little and at the time his 4th Piano Concerto was considered a flop.  His romantic way of writing was out of fashion as music was becoming much more modern with composers such a Shostakovich and Prokofiev.  However, even those who don't particularly like Rachmaninov's music marvel at this work.

Throughout the work there is one recurring theme which is the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass, normally a symbol of doom and judgement, here it is used to give the work great stability and strength.  It can be heard through the variations. 

The recording I recommend is played by the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpceski with the Royal Liverpool Orchestra conducted by Russian Vasily Petrenko, their principal conductor.  This is an excellent recording and also contains Rachmaninov's piano concertos now 1 & 4, both also great works.

"Trpceski is alive to the sheer fun to be had and his impetuosity is neatly matched by Petrenko's Liverpool Players"   The Arts Desk 2011
Here is the brilliant Stephen Hough talking about and playing the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini on YouTube     

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Posted on June 15, 2015 and filed under Romantic Period.

Church Flowers - Saint Saens

I have been put on church flower duty for the next three weeks (thank you to my mother-in-law who put me down for February - garden very dead).  So I resorted to a few Lilies and Chrysanthemums from Tescos plus the odd bit of rather sorry looking greenery from my garden.  Actually to my surprise the arrangement doesn’t look too bad but go to get some water from the tap in the vestry - no water.  I go home to get a watering can - not even a couple of hefty kicks can persuade the garden shed to open as the door is so warped due to all the rain.  So I resort to a bucket and a few pot holes later I get back to the church and find a swimming pool in the back of my car.  Oh I do love doing the church flowers!

The work I am going to recommend this week is the magnificent Saint Saens Symphony No 3, known as the Organ Symphony which has to be one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and is a must for any music library.


Charles-Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921) was a French organist, composer and pianist from the Romantic era and is one of the most distinguished musicians of his generation.  And as if that wasn't enough, he was also a mathematician, philosopher and an astronomer.   He gave his first concert aged five and first played a Mozart Piano Concerto in Concert aged ten after which he offered as an encore any one of Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas from memory. 

This work is a Symphony but includes the organ in the 2nd and 4th movements hence it’s title.  Saint Saens said of this work “I gave everything to it I was able to give.  What I have accomplished here I will never achieve again”.  The work was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and Saint Saens came over to London to conduct it.

Saint Saens acknowledged a considerable indebtedness to Franz Liszt and received hands-on support and encouragement from him (Liszt called him the “greatest organist in the world”).  This symphony was an outright tribute to Liszt and the manuscript bears his name.  Similar to much of Liszt’s work, Saint Saens introduces a theme in the first movement which you hear being transformed in various guises throughout the entire work.

The organ appears in all its' splendour in the final movement where it bursts onto the scene as though it is going to raise the roof.  It enters majestically and expands in grandeur, building up to a huge climax at the end.

The recording I recommend of this work is with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Mazel, I particularly like this recording because they are using an immensely powerful organ and it certainly raises the roof.  The whole symphony is fantastic, but if you wanted to you could just download the final movement.

Listen to the Finale (not the recommended recording) on Youtube

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Posted on February 6, 2014 and filed under Romantic Period.