Solo Piano Variations
In addition to writing original solo piano works, Chopin also composed a few solo piano pieces based on pre-existent melodies. The advantage of the variation form is that it allows the composer—and the performer as well—to show off innovation and invention in each successive variation. If ever there was a composer who showed virtuosity as both a crafter of musical lines and a skilled performer, it was Chopin.
Introduction and Variations on a German Air (“Der Schweitzerbub”)
Chopin set the melody for the German song, “Der Schweitzerbub” in 1826, although it was not published until after his death. The story goes that Katarzyna Sowinska, the wife of a Polish general, heard this song at a concert in Warsaw and asked Chopin for variations. She is the dedicatee of the work. After a brief introduction, Chopin presents the theme very simply. Each subsequent variation is full of surprises and delights. Although there is not much to the tune, Chopin’s variations are very entertaining, and he includes all of the expected idiosyncrasies of the form, including a minor-key variation. The final variation that follows the minore section is incredibly graceful and charms right through to the close.
Variations (“Souvenir de Paganini”)
Chopin ostensibly composed this when he lived in Warsaw, and we might imagine that he wrote it more as a personal exercise than a piece intended for public consumption. The basis of the Variations is “Carnival of Venice,” an Italian tune that Paganini famously played in ever- more-difficult variations. Paganini’s concert in Warsaw in 1829 was likely where Chopin heard this piece. Chopin begins with a simple version of the tune and follows with ten variations. Interestingly, Chopin chose to keep the left hand accompaniment the same throughout while varying only the right hand. It’s an interesting choice. Perhaps Chopin was using the left hand to represent the orchestral accompaniment, while the right hand reflects the music of the virtuosic soloist. The Variations were finally published in 1881, more than three decades after Chopin’s death.
Introduction and Variations on “Je vends des scapulaires”
(From Ferdinand He?rold’s opera, Ludovic)
Although he wrote no opera, Chopin was a great fan of the genre. He attended the premiere of Ludovic, a comic opera by Ferdinand He?rold in 1833. The tune, “Je vends des scapulaires” became popular outside of the opera, and formed the basis of these variations in 1833. A short introduction precedes the statement of He?rold’s melody. There are four subsequent variations and a coda. There are echoes of Polish dance in the second and fourth variations. In contrast to the “Schweitzerbub” Variations Chopin composed in his teens, the Variations on “Je vends des scapulaires” show a sharper focus on melody and less on flash, although there are plenty of quick passages designed to impress.
Variations on the March from Bellini’s I puritani
When Vincenzo Bellini passed away in 1835 he was two months shy of thirty-four. His operas had become something of a sensation in Paris, and his death was deeply mourned by his Parisian musical colleagues. Six of these colleagues, among them Liszt and Chopin, collected a set of variations on a march from Bellini’s last opera I puritani. The title of the variations was Hexameron, reflecting the six contributors. Chopin’s variation was the last in the set, and it follows a furiously fast passage by Liszt, and precedes Liszt’s coda and finale, marked Molto Vivace Prestissimo. Chopin’s variation is a Largo, and it provides a moment of thoughtful respite before Liszt’s animated close.