The 18th variation of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was used as the theme for the movie “Somewhere In Time”. The original was sprightly and minor; both Rachmaninoff and Brahms wrote variations preserving its nervous nature in virtuoso piano arrangements of extraordinary difficulty. For the last variation, however, Rachmaninoff inverts it, plays it slowly and rubato, and alters the mode from minor to major. At this point it becomes a lush movement of triads and diatonic passing tones, particularly gorgeous when set for string orchestra.
The question is, which melody contains the beauty? Frankly, the melody is almost lost in grand arpeggios in the 18th variation, and the harmonic minor chord progression also is lost in the transposition. What the song communicates in mood and spirit is significantly different, and the commonality between the original and the 18th variation is obscure. The question I haven’t managed to answer is whether the beauty is in that commonality or simply in the two separate but equally simple chord progressions. If they are two sides of a coin, then it’s safe to say half a coin is a thing of imperfect beauty.
Looking instead at the other selections I’ve made in this series, it’s a little more obvious what I at least find beautiful, which is in fact the lush triads of the variation and the fact that the melody supports and defines them rather than fights with them. There are passing tones, which help the definition by establish the scale mode, and there are some suspensions which express themselves more in the resolution than in themselves. Perhaps I’d be happy listening to nothing but slow stacked chords, like Bach’s Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier.