Variations on a Theme of Paganini

orchestration: 2 pianos
year composed: 1941
about premiere
location: Warszawa
date: 1941
soloists: Andrzej Panufnik, Witold Lutosławski
edition: PWM, Chester Music
orchestration: piano and orchestra
  pf solo-2(1 picc)3 (1 ci)22(1 cfg), 4331, batt (3), ar, archi
dedicated to: Felicja Blumental
year composed: 1977-1978
about premiere
location: Miami
date: 18 XI 1979
orchestra: Florida Philharmonic Orchestra
conductor: Brian Priestman
soloists: Felicja Blumental
edition: PWM, Chester Music
transcription by: Marta Ptaszyńska
orchestration: two pianos and percussion
edition: PWM

Variations on a Theme by Paganini (more precisely, transcriptions of Nicolò Paganini's twelve variations on the theme of his own Caprice no. 24 in A minor for violin solo) were created in 1941 in a version for two pianos and were premiered in the same year by their composer with Andrzej Panufnik at Aria cafe in the occupied Warsaw. An authored version for piano and orchestra has been prepared on the initiative of the Polish-American pianist and harpsichordist Felicja Blumenthal in 1978.

In the Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Lutosławski made a living for himself and his mother by playing the piano at cafes, most frequently at Art and Fashion, but also Aria, At the Actresses', and sporadically the Salon of Art, the latter having been run by the pianist and composer Bolesław Woytowicz. Occasionally, Lutosławski accompanied an ensemble in the style of The Revelers, namely the choir Dana, still popular before World War II, and took part in the rare, sometimes official, but usually secret concerts in private apartments. In the years 1940-1944 he regularly played in a piano duo with Andrzej Panufnik. The duo Lutosławski-Panufnik prepared a repertoire of nearly 200 pieces: arrangements of classical music from Bach to Brahms and Tchaikovsky, and even Stravinsky, as well as traditional jazz motives, among all of which found itself an authored arrangement of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy. This collection also included a transcribed version of Paganini's Caprice no. 24 in A minor prepared by Witold Lutosławski and played frequently at Aria cafe and other establishments. As a side note, Panufnik never claimed to have participated in the composition of this piece. From the entire collection of the Lutosławski-Panufnik duo, only the sheet music to the Variations avoided destruction in the Warsaw Uprising.

The theme and its 11 variations with a finale that make up the entire composition by Nicolò Paganini remained untouched as to their structure, but Lutosławski rendered his version with an extraordinary, virtuosic bravado that basically engages the original in a competition. This bravado makes itself apparent through the fact that no matter how varied the types of performance technique applied in Paganini's solo violin composition, they become transferred with great finesse to the effect of the two pianos, creating a ‘counterpoint' of that which in its timbral essence remains violinistic, and that which is pianistic. In the orchestral version we are dealing with a masterly operation, and even a juggling of three textures - violinistic, pianistic, and orchestral - assigned either alternately, or in counterpoint to the solo instrument and orchestral instruments or their groups. In the version for two pianos, the retained principle of an alternating exchange of melodic and harmonic material between both instruments slightly lengthens the duration of the piece when performed by one piano with orchestra - which results from a partially implemented, successive linking of musical portions played simultaneously by both instruments in the version for both pianos - but in turn significantly enriches the piece in the orchestral version through the qualities of musical colour.

In keeping with the original, the Variations are tonal, but Lutosławski overlays the diatonic scaffolding with chromaticism and technical solutions sometimes unknown to Paganini, such as the polytonality of the third variation. The variations themselves are simultaneously etude-like, which is a source of not only their expressional, but also purely articulative contrast in the types of motion and various formulas of pianistic technique, such as pizzicato, tremolo, the use of parallel chords, passages, scales, glissandos, and other devices. They naturally connect with the expressional composition of the cycle, something that is perhaps most clear in the sixth variation, marked Poco lento (also the strongest agogic contrast in the entire cycle, the latter being maintained in fast tempos, in keeping with the original model). In this variation the mutually divergent scales in both pianos are played dolcissimo molto legato, only to give way in a maximal contrast of expression to the Allegro molto of the seventh variation.

The piano part grows out of the finest virtuosic models from the musical line of Liszt, Busoni, and Rachmaninoff, at the same time becoming enriched by the experience of Bartók and - to an extent - Prokofiev, while the orchestral part owes it lustre to the Neoclassical vitalism being seasoned with elements of timbre and articulation originating not only in Ravel's use of the orchestra, but also in the references made in twentieth-century scores to folklorism and the contemporary orchestra's sonoristic, timbral and articulation palette. As to its harmony, the piece naturally relies on the A minor original, in relation to which the chordal textures, not having much in common with major-minor tonality, become a type of atonal and purely timbre-oriented variation that imbues the entire work with an almost piquant flavour. Contrast to the perpetual vigore spirit maintained in allegro is introduced solely by the aforementioned, lyrical and cantilena-like sixth variation (poco lento), in which one may discern an allusion to the musical poetry of Karol Szymanowski. This contrasting variant in the centre of the cycle and a passage-based, mini cadence of the piano in the closing of the final variation create a purely external allusion to the form of a miniature piano concerto.

Music for chamber orchestra in Witold Lutosławski's oeuvre is an extraordinarily interesting domain; in it as an area somewhere between the extended chamber music writing and prolegomenon to symphonic style an especially intriguing aesthetic play is being carried on, and one whose significance is fundamental to the musical poetry of Lutosławski. This significance results from the fact that Lutosławski's chamber output is rather modest (though it is difficult to consider the entirety of his achievements while omitting the String Quartet and Epitaph for oboe and piano), yet the spirit of chamber performance is present in an intensive form in the composer's symphonic scores, which constitute the crux of his compositional legacy. Viewing the compositions for string orchestra in this perspective is a valuable exercise.

ach / trans. mk