Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941) is one of Witold Lutosławski ‘s most popular works. It was originally written for two pianos. The story of its composition takes us to the time of the German occupation of Poland in 1939. Lutosławski managed to flee Nazi captivity. He traveled 400 kilometers on foot without identification papers, hiding, to his home in Warsaw. In order to support himself, he accompanied the popular male vocal quartet “Chor Dana” in the Ziemiańska café.
He and fellow pianist Andrzej Panufnik (his fellow student, conductor and composer) formed a piano duo, performing in a few popular nightclubs: Aria, Art and Fashion, and At the Actresses. At that time, public concerts were banned in Poland and these establishments became art clubs where elite Polish performers made music on a daily basis. In four years (starting in 1940), the Lutosławski-Panufnik duo performed about 1300 concerts. With “unbridled imagination” (as Panufnik recalled), the two created more than 200 free arrangements of works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bizet, Johann Strauss Jr, Gershwin, Szymanowski… They also wrote playful paraphrases and improvised jazz pieces. The ensemble’s crowning number was a masterful transcription of Ravel’s Bolero.
Unfortunately, leaving the city in a hurry on the eve of the Warsaw Uprising, they left the manuscripts of their works there. The only survivors are the Variations on a Theme by Paganini, written by Lutosławski, which he took with several other scores of his own. They are based on the famous Caprice No. 24 in G minor for solo violin by Niccolò Paganini. It’s a dazzling virtuoso piece that inspired famous composers such as Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, Charles Camilleri, Eugène Isai, Sergei Rachmaninoff and others to make their own variations.
The Polish composer composed 12 variations and a Coda on Paganini’s theme. Partly a humorous parody, partly a defiant display of virtuosity, in which there is no shortage of symbolic imitations of acrobatic violin effects (pizzicati, glissandi, double tones, stunning passages). Retaining the original tonality of A minor, Lutosławski “embellishes” Paganini’s diatonicism with colourful chromaticisms, mocking dissonances, and bitonal triplets.
After the war the Variations on a Theme by Paganini was printed and performed with great success. In 1978, at the request of the pianist Felicja Blumental he revised the work for piano and orchestra. It was premiered in Miami on November 18, 1979 with the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Brian Priestman.