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Sample Answer Aural Perception Section A, IBDP Exam

Using the mark scheme from past exam papers to practice with your students is a powerful tool. With the changes in the set works, it can be quite challenging to create your own practice questions and sample answers.

I had a good look at the questions from the last few years and have drafted a question for Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.


"With reference to at least four variations, explain how Rachmaninoff uses the compositional technique of variation."


Here is my take on it.


The use of variation has been a prominent compositional feature since the early Renaissance music. This technique has been used throughout music history and finds a prominent example in Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme be Nicolai Paganini.


Variation is a formal technique where music material is presented in a different form. The changes may involve melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, tempo, meter, instrumentation or any combination of these -  just to name a few.


In this section,  I would like to focus on three aspects:

1. allude to Impressionism (displaying a variation in style)

2. Use of rhythmic changes (rhythmic variation)

3. The transfer of a theme composed for a solo violin to the main instrument - the piano with orchestra accompaniment. (variation in instrumentation)


1. Rachmaninoff   makes reference to the Impressionist style through the use of non-functional extended chords, which create a dream-like effect. E.g. Variation 11 (in bar 3) where 6th, (bar 6) 13th and (in bar 9) 7th chords with a flatted 9 are used. In Variation 22 (bar 62-63) parallel chords, common in impressionist style, can be observed.


2. The original rhythm is clearly structured with an emphasis on a regular pattern of eighth and sixteenth notes, while the quarter note indicates the cadence at the end of a four bar phrase. In Variation 9, The juxtaposition  of the syncopated piano offbeat eight notes to the triplets in the strings creates an interesting polyrhythm. Another prominent rhythmical feature, the use of a hemiola in Variation 14 (bar 24-27) where the ¾ meter is disturbed by the use of the (original) 2/4 meter.


3. Transferring the main theme from the original violin to the piano with orchestra accompaniment opens up a variety of options. The full range of the piano is considerably bigger than that of a violin: in the introduction, one can hear the lowest A while in Variation 10 bar 24, the piano plays in the highest tessitura (use of octava sign). A mysterious atmosphere is created in variation 17 by the piano playing arpeggios in the low tessitura (mostly in parallel motion) with long sustained legato notes in the French Horns and chromatic tremolo quarter notes in the upper strings.