The overture and scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream appear to have been worn from one burst of inspiration, but in actual fact one was written seventeen years after the other. In 1826 the seventeen-year-old composer had begun to read Shakespeare’s plays in translation by the German romantic poet Ludwig Tieck. As a result, on 6 August that year he completed his fantasy concerto overture, which immediately became his “calling card”.
On 14 October 1843 in Potsdam the premiere of Ludwig Tieck’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream took place; by this time Tieck was Director of theatres in Berlin. It was logical that the Berlin conductor Felix Mendelssohn would compose another twelve musical numbers for it, including one of the orchestral entr’actes – the Scherzo.
Living abroad, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed little, appearing primarily as a concert pianist. In his works from that period he often turned to the European legacy – thus he composed the piano variations on a theme of Corelli and transcription of works by Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was Rachmaninoff’s last work for piano. It was written at the Villa Senar in Switzerland in a short period, just one and a half months. The rhapsody comprises twenty-four variations on a theme from the famous Violin Capriccio No 24 by Niccolò Paganini. The variations are combined in three groups, as a result of which we can see a form reminiscent of a piano concerto – the presto first movement, the lento second and the virtuoso finale. In the seventh variation there is the theme of the mediaeval sequence Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) – one of the themes that flows through all of Rachmaninoff’s music. The lyrical core of the lento movement and, indeed, the entire cycle, is Variation No 18, in style very remote from the theme but retaining an intonational link with it. In the culmination of the coda we once again hear the Dies irae theme, though the work concludes with peaceful and enigmatic music.