The Most Beautiful Melody: Rachmaninoff variation 18

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.


“This strange beating together of hands has no meaning.  To me it is very disturbing.  We try to make sounds like music, and in between comes this strange sound.”  –Leopold Stokowski

Musical Form by Robert E. Tyndall

This may be a bit unfair, as I’m reviewing an old edition from 1964.  I picked it up in a bargain bin because it would fill a gap in my knowledge, and it did.

I now have a fairly clear idea of the sonata, concerto, and fugue forms that I lacked.  However, I can’t help thinking that somewhere along the line a better textbook has been written as Tyndall often seems to get in over his head.

Musical forms aren’t absolutes with clear formulas.  That’s true.  If you get deep enough into analyzing any piece, no matter how Platonic an example of a form, it will refuse to be perfectly reduced.  However, each chapter seemed to end with the same trailing off into a helpless statement of the protean nature of music and an attempt to bail out by listing examples for study.

The examples themselves are excellent, and he uses short sections reproduced inside the text very effectively.  That is the success of the book.  It was worth the read, but I remain convinced that some other book would be more worth it.

Toolkit: dim to 7b9

A progression that comes up often is a diminished chord followed by a dominant 7b9 a fourth up.  It’s a form of ii-V, sometimes in an ending cadence or turnaround.

The easy way to get through it is to treat them as the same chord.  They’re the same notes, excepting the bass.  Technically, they imply different scales (though the pairing defines the scale of the 7b9), and it matters a good bit what comes before and after; but there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple and playing with small arpeggios from time to time.

“Stella by Starlight” is full of these, as is “Dear Old Stockholm”.  My weakness here is a temptation to play the same lick each time they come around, essentially doing a turn of root, b9, root, 7 of the second chord.  Sometimes I’ll do an arpeggio of the diminished chord with a half-step trill on each note.  Chromatic slides along the diminished arpeggio work too.  (I’m using a fully diminished chord, four notes each a minor third apart.)

If I have enough of these gestures ready to hand, I can pick one that fits in whatever larger phrase I’m constructing.  This is a very fluid chord change, and I’ve been able to internalize it pretty well, so I’m fairly graceful with it.  (And therefore I like “Stella” and “Stockholm”.)  It helps that there are only three fully diminished chords (spelling can cause you to see a lot of different 7b9s).

Taking it farther, Mark Levine (The Jazz Theory Book) points out that Fmin-maj9, Gsusb9, Abmaj7#5, Bb7#11, Dm7b5, and E7Alt are in fact all the same chord–unless you’re the bass player!

Lest We Forget Our Roots

“The entire history of Western music can be characterized as the gradual acceptance of dissonant intervals.  In the middle Ages, writing a tritone in a piece of church music could get you excommunicated, or worse.”

–Mark Levine, “The Jazz Theory Book”

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