Composers Datebook®

Rachmaninoff writes 'something for audiences'

Composers Datebook for November 7, 2013


Sergei Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for solo piano and orchestra had its world premiere on this day in 1934 in Baltimore, where the Philadelphia Orchestra was appearing under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. Rachmaninoff was soloist and was recalled to the stage many times by an enthusiastic audience.

The melancholy Rachmaninoff was troubled by this: "It somehow looks suspicious," he commented, "that my Rhapsody has had such an immediate success with everybody." He needn't have worried—the critic of the Musical Courier wrote that Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody was, quote, "Not an important opus, in all probability," and the music critic of The New Yorker sniffed, "The Rhapsody isn't philosophical, significant, or even artistic. It's something for audiences …"

Well, the theme of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody — the A minor solo violin Caprice of the 19th-century Italian virtuoso Nicolo Paganini — has proven popular not only with other audiences, but other composers as well. In 1977, as the result of a bet with his cello-playing brother, Julian, pop composer Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote this set of variations on the Paganini theme for solo cello and rock band. It proved such a hit that eight years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber reorchestrated his "Variations" for full symphony orchestra, and this upscale version, too, was premiered to great acclaim at its British premiere in London and its Midwest premiere in Minneapolis.

Music Played in Today's Program

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 Jon Nakamatsu, piano; Rochester Philharmonic; Christopher Seaman, cond. Harmonia Mundi 90.7286

Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840) Solo Violin Caprice No. 24 James Ehnes, violin Telarc 80398

Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948) Variations Julian Lloyd Webber, cello; London Philharmonic; Lorin Maazel, cond. Philips 420 342

On This Day


  • 1810 - Hungarian composer Ferenc (Franz) Erkel, in Gyula;

  • 1859 - Russian composer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, in Gatchina (Gregorian date: Nov. 19);

  • 1905 - English composer William Alwyn, in Northampton;


  • 1983 - French composer Germaine Tailleferre, age 91, in Paris;


  • 1723 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 60 ("O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort" I)performed on the 24th Sunday after Trinity as part of Bach's first annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1723/24);

  • 1867 - Liszt: "Dante Symphony" in Dresden;

  • 1875 - Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 3, in Moscow (Gregorian date: Nov. 19);

  • 1924 - American premiere of Mussorgsky (arr. Ravel): “Pictures at an Exhibition,” by the Boston Symphony, Serge Koussevitzky conducting;

  • 1934 - Rachmaninoff: "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," in Baltimore, by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, with the composer as soloist;

  • 1940 - Stravinsky: Symphony in C, by the Chicago Symphony, with the composer conducting; This work was commissioned by Mrs. R. Woods Bliss in honor of the Chicago Symphony's 50th Anniversary;

  • 1987 - Daniel Asia: "Scherzo Sonata" for piano, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., by pianist Jonathan Shames (who commissioned the work);

  • 1988 - Leo Ornstein: Piano Sonata No. 7, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, by pianist Marvin Tartak;

  • 1991 - Christopher Rouse: “Karolju” for chorus and orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony and Chorus, David Zinman conducting;

  • 1997 - Peter Maxwell Davies: Piano Concerto, in Nottingham, England, with soloist Kathryn Stott and the Royal Philharmonic, conducted by the composer;


  • 1785 - The first American musical society founded at Stoughton, Massachusetts;

  • 1950 - A "Look" magazine feature on composer Edgar Varèse attracts the attention of 9-year old Frank Zappa and leads to a life-long fascination with the music of Varèse; Zappa would later found the unconventional rock band "The Mothers of Invention."

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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