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I'm trying to analyze the introduction of Rachmaninoff's Paganini variations (picture below). I'm thinking the whole thing is a sequence and I only have to analyze the first two measures. The F# makes me think that the first chord of the second measure (F#-A-C-E) is an applied dominant and I think it's a vii7 of G. However, what's the second chord of the second measure (G-A-C#-F)? I can't make sense of it, although I hear it as a dominant of the A to follow.

I would appreciate the help!

Paganini variations introduction - Rachmaninoff

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I would argue that chord labels and Roman numerals are less helpful for a passage like this one.

Instead, I'd spot a larger pattern: that of the bass pitches for the first eight measures. F♯, G, A, B♭, C, C♯, D♯, and E create an octatonic scale (an alternation of half and whole steps) that culminates on the E on the downbeat of m. 9, helping solidify the V7 of the global A minor.

We could connect this to Roman numerals in a meaningful way, though, if we want to push this a bit farther. The downbeats in the bass emphasize every other note of the octatonic collection (F♯, G, A, B♭, C, C♯, D♯, E) and in doing so spell out the viio7/V in A minor. This being the opening of the piece, it's a common compositional tactic to prepare V (which therefore prepares the arrival of tonic) to lead in to the work at large.

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