S,V. Rachmaninov wrote two cycles of piano variations: on a theme by Chopin (in Russia at the beginning of this century) and on a theme by Corelli (in New York in 1931). These remarkable works separated by almost 30 years have had different destinies. The Corelli Variations which have become part of concert repertoire are often performed and recorded on discs. In contrast, Variations on a Theme of Chopin, after their performance by the author in Moscow in February 1903, have not appeared in pianists’ programmes for almost 70 years. The fact they were forgotten has been taken to mean that the Variations were not a success. It is explained by a curious paradox. Until recently it was believed that Rachmaninov had a traditional musical mentality and followed closely in Tchaikovsky’s footsteps. Actually Rachmani-nov’s music was extremely innovative though of an inconspicuous, unobtrusive kind, unlike that of other authors, for example, his contemporary Scriabin. This made it difficult to understand the imagery of many Rachmaninov works including the Chopin Variations. This remarkable and highly idiomatic composition is an interesting study in the creative process of the young composer. In their vividness and concentrated expression of the essence of Rachmaninov’s style Variations on a Theme of Chopin rank equal with the Corelli Variations.
Though based on a non-Russian theme, both cycles are profoundly Russian in their spirit, intonation, colours and imagery. They have the same principle of theme treatment, the same original method of its development which might be called „romantic” when a theme rather than become pivotal (which is typical for classics, Tchaikovsky, for one) serves as a kind of associative impulse triggering the composer’s imagination which, however, in its free flight always tends to gravitate toward some basic tone, intonation and that which is behind it — the deeper psychological layer. It is this principle pursued in Russian music and art that allowed Rachmaninov with amazing clarity and precision to speak of Russian people, their spiritual anguish and quests, hope and confidence, their affections, and to feel Russian nature — the great spaces, drizzling rain, swaying grass blades, silence basking in golden rays and the babble of spring voices.
These are the features which make Rachmaninov who belongs in the 20th century a profoundly Russian composer.
The Chopin theme is the well-known funeral C minor Prelude. It is so laconic, perfect and complete in itself that one can only marvel at Rachmaninov’s imagination, his rich spiritual world which enabled the author, drawing from this short piece-phrase, to unravel before the listener a gigantic panorama which is connected with its source and at the same time is entirely detached from it. The attraction and distinction of the Chopin Variations is in its surprisingly optimistic music unlike the dramatic Corelli Variations. It is a genuinely Rachmaninov work, reflecting the artist’s complex inner world, profound psychological approach and tragic perception of life.
The Chopin Variations were written by young Rachmaninov when he was recovering from a crisis caused by the fate’s terrible blow—the failure of his First Symphony. Few works were written between the Variations (Op. 22) and the Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Op. 18). It was the period when Rachmaninov’s powerful vitality triumphed and life again sparkled with bright colours, the time of growing confidence in himself, and the urge to create, to share with others the intoxicating beauty, elemental force and the pursuit of happiness, which filled the composer’s heart.
Variations on a Theme of Corelii appeared at a different time (Op. 42). They are dedicated to F. Kreisler, a noted Austrian violinist, who was very dear to Rachmaninov’s heart and with whom Rachmaninov himself played. It was Kreisler who made the brilliant arrangements for Corelli Variations on the folia theme often mistakenly ascribed to Corelli. Actually it is a popular Portuguese theme, its source lost in the darkness of ages. At first the folia tune in triple time had a wide currency as a masquerade dance-song. With time the popular folia acquired some stylistic peculiarities, becoming widely spread in different European countries. Many composers addressed themselves to the famous theme: Pergolesi, Vivaldi, Lully, Bach, Gretry, Cherubini and others. Liszt used it for his Rhapsodie espagnole, Rachmaninov wrote a variations cycle on it.
The legend has it that it was a song of a girl who lost her mind because of unhappy love. To my mind, this image in Rachmaninov’s treatment greatly resembles that of Ophelia from „Hamlet” — it is as pure, moving, helpless and lonely.
On the whole Variations on a Theme of Corelli are more laconic than those on a theme of Chopin. They are written in late Rachmaninov style — poised, reserved, withdrawn. Fantastic images are coloured in sombre, grim shades, hopeless loneliness dulls the colours, the caleidoscope of persistent memories so dear to the heart and gone forever, deepens the shadows.