variations on a theme

In the classical period of Western music the only generally legitimate ways a composer would appropriate another composer’s music would be to “transcribe” it for different instrumentation, or to write variations on that composer’s theme.

This was quite a common practice, and some great works of the Western tradition originated in this way. For instance, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini¬† (1934) is one of many sets of variations on the 24th “Caprice for Solo Violin,” the last in a set of works written by Niccol√≤ Paganini between 1802 and 1817. (Paganini’s Caprice is itself a kind of brief set of variations on the theme.)

Hilary Hahn plays Paganini Caprice #24

Stephen Hough discusses and then performs Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

This classical practice influenced the development of jazz, and has parallels with the practice in jazz of improvising on standard themes.

See also: transcription