Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s ‘Don Juan’ Op.2
Introduction and Rondò Op.16
Andante spianato and Grandd Polonaise brillante Op.22
Within Chopin’s piano oeuvre there exists an obscure area: the compositions in the brilliant style. Nowadays practically forgotten and usually synonymous with shallow virtuosity, the brilliant style played a crucial role in the decades that separated the Classical from the Romantic eras, a period Jim Samson defines as ‘post classicism.’
The appearance of the Viennese pianos, with their light and facile action, inspired scores of pianist-composers such as Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Pixis or even Czerny to venture into new territory in search for ever-growing technical and sonorous horizons. It is no mere chance that Johann Nepomouk Hummel, one of the foremost pianists on the international scene of the day, described his own ideal style of playing in terms of “variety of nuances, clarity of articulation, sharpness of contrasts and rapidity of execution.” This seems a ‘shopping list’ for the recipe of the virtuoso pianist, valid today as it was then (let’s imagine, for example, a concerto of Rachmaninoff or Bartók played by a pianist without “clarity of articulation” or “sharpness of contrasts”).
Aside from the obvious consideration that a brilliant work should have had a more or less evident virtuoso connotation, Hummel’s intuitions flourished into a vast literature of variation sets (very often on famous themes), rondos and fantasies, and it is specifically in this capricious repertoire that the brilliant style is best appreciated. The young Chopin was practically a self-taught pianist (he had had his first piano tuition from Wojciech Zywny, who was a violinist!), but was under the tutelage of the severe Jozef Elsner for Composition. As such, he had studied and digested the great Classics and the canonic forms, but felt a natural attraction towards the sparkling concert world and the stile brillante, so much so that almost all his early compositions show the influence of his contemporaries, notably Hummel.
In 1825 Chopin had already assembled a notable catalogue of virtuosic compositions, principally variation sets and numerous Polonaises. Paradoxically, these works betrayed a desire to draw attention to the virtuoso pianist rather than to the composer, but in the case of Chopin there was another principal source of inspiration: opera (among his early Polonaises, now lost, there was one on themes from the Barber of Seville and another on a theme from The Thieving Magpie). His friend Tytus Woyciechowsky recounted often that Chopin never tired of speaking about opera singers in enthusiastic terms (at the age of ten, Chopin had played for Angelica Catalani, who had given him one of his most prized possessions, an inscribed gold watch), and inevitably the fantastic embellishments with which he adorned his early melodies owe a serious debt to the tradition of belcanto.
At fifteen, under Elsner’s supervision, Chopin wrote his ‘first opus,” the Rondò Op.1 in c minor. The work was engraved the same year by Antoni Brzezina, then the most important music publisher in Warsaw. Chopin was able to demonstrate at once his original personality, especially in the deployment of virtuoso figurations in a harmonic rather than melodic context, and in the Rondò’s second theme it is easy to hear his aspirations toward the belcanto.
Only two years later, in 1827, he wrote the Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s Don Juan for piano and orchestra, Op.2, a work of primary importance in Chopin’s life. The Theme appears after an important introduction, elegantly drawn in three contrasting panels and culminating in a florid cadenza. Six variations follow, mostly vivacious and closely linked to the Theme (the Fourth is particularly notorious among pianists for its inherent difficulties of execution), until the finale alla polacca. This is a true tour-de-force that closes the beautiful work with much boisterousness. At the suggestion of Elsner, Chopin sent the Variations to the Viennese publisher Haslinger, who decided to engrave them after a memorable performance, given by Chopin in Vienna on the 11th of August 1829. Robert Schumann then wrote his famous review (‘hats off, gentlemen: a genius’), and for Chopin this was a turning point in his life, a true opening on the international scene in the grandest of fashions.
Back in Poland, Chopin completed the first set of Etudes (Op.10) and the two Concertos for piano and orchestra, all works that have since established a permanent place in every pianist’s repertoire. In Warsaw Chopin had also begun two more important works, the Introduction and Rondò Op.16 and the Grande Polonaise brillante, published a few years later as Op.22. The first is a fascinating work, justly famous and technically arduous. A rather dramatic introduction (redolent of certain movements of Weber) gives way to the vivacious theme of the Rondò (a krakoviak). The various episodes that intersperse the Rondò are all of a virtuoso character, at times very similar to that of the two concertos, but always beautifully controlled, so that the work progresses in an exemplarily balanced fashion.
The Grande Polonaise brillante was originally conceived in 1830 as a grand concert piece for piano and orchestra, and Chopin performed it several times in public. He eventually resolved to have it published in 1836 by Schlesinger in Paris, and composed an introductory movement, the andante spianato, without orchestral accompaniment. The work’s title, in full, then became Grande Polonaise brillante, précédée d’un Andante spianato, Op.22. This is justly a repertory work, a great demonstration of technical mastery imbued with a first rate expressive coherence throughout every bar of music. Chopin himself was very satisfied with the work, and chose to perform it at his only public concert in Paris, at the prestigious series of the Conservatoire, in 1834.
Both the Don Giovanni variations and the Polonaise brillante, were originally written for piano and orchestra, but here presented in their solo version. This is not my arbitrary decision. The brilliant literature was always conceived as ‘concert music’ (rather than ‘salon music’), and the centerpiece of public concerts was often a concerto for piano and orchestra – when, that is, the orchestra was there. More often than not, entire concertos were performed with the sole accompaniment of a string quintet or as solo pieces. So popular was the fashion to ‘arrange’ the orchestral accompaniment that in many a first edition of certain works (including Chopin’s Variations and Grande Polonaise), the orchestral part is printed in small font directly on the piano score, including numerous variants suggested by the composer himself to be used whenever said work is performed without accompaniment. It has to be said that in the brilliant literature generally the orchestra plays a very minor and dispensable role, hardly more than a background accompaniment.
Eventually, Chopin abandoned the concert platform almost completely and concentrated on teaching and composing. With his work, he contributed in supreme fashion to the creation of modern pianism. In his mature works also, such as the marvellous Berceuse Op.57, he retained the flair for passages and fioriture that came directly from the brilliant style. To be sure, the Berceuse was originally thought out as a series of minute variations, called Variantes and only later published with its definite title of Berceuse. With these ‘variantes’, each of four bars over an ostinato bass, Chopin threw a luminous ray into the future of music in general and the piano in particular. How right his old teacher Jozef Elsner had been, so many years before, when he wrote in a school report: “Chopin, F, Third Year student, exceptional talent. Musical genius.” Frédérik Chopin died in his new apartment in Place Vendôme, in Paris, on the 11th of October 1849. He was thirty-nine years old.
© Sandro Ivo Bartoli, 2007