This is the piano part of variation 7 of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. As you can hear, the music has little to do with Paganini’s famous melody; in fact it’s a entirely new element in the work, but one that Rachmaninoff had used previously and was to use again in the future. Here it is without the harmony and with its original words attached:
It’s the plainsong melody for that vision of judgement that appears in the Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath.
Rachmaninoff wasn’t the first to use it – both Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique) and Liszt (Totentanz) had used it to great dramatic effect. But, judging by the number of times it appears in the Russian’s output – too many times to list, but famously in The Isle of the Dead (unsurprisingly), The Bells, the above mentioned Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances – Rachmaninoff was positively fixated on this musical image of death and what (possibly) follows it.
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