Chopin: Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ for piano and orchestra, Op. 2

performed by Idil Biret and the Slovak State Philharmonic orchestra under Robert Stankovsky

Eusebius came in quietly the other day. You know the ironic smile on his pale face with which he seeks to create suspense. I was sitting at the piano with Florestan. Florestan is, as you know, one of those rare musical minds which anticipate, as it were, that which is new and extraordinary. Today, however, he was surprised. With the words, “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” Eusebius laid a piece of music on the piano rack. […] Chopin – I have never heard the name – who can he be? […] every measure betrays his genius!

Robert Schumann, quoted from this article, also linked below

I feel like this is a neat little trick. Not a trick, that sounds sly, but something that we’ve seen all three composers do so far, now that we’re on our third in this little stretch of “early works of important composers” or whatever is the idea of taking themes from another composer and trying your hand at reworking them or recycling them in some way. Mozart’s first four piano concertos were all orchestrations of what seem to be now otherwise-forgotten works, and Beethoven’s little Dressler variations was the same, even though it is teeny tiny compared to the others and doesn’t have an official opus number.
In contrast, Chopin’s opus 2 is perhaps the grandest. Neither Mozart’s four re-orchestrations nor Beethoven’s small and slight Dressler march/variations have gained the fame and exposure that Chopin’s reworking did. He also used a far more famous and enduring theme than either of the two previous composers, from one of Mozart’s most famous compositions (sort of? maybe?). In fact I was watching Don Giovanni the other day and it struck me as “Hey, that’s a Mozart theme,” because I’d been working on this article and had completely forgotten that that opera is the source material for this piece, at least that segment in particular. So there’s that. That’s how I think of this piece of Chopin’s.
But that’s not entirely true. His teacher, Józef Elsner, of whom we spoke yesterday, gave the young Chopin (likely the entire class or group) a homework assignment: set of piano variations with orchestral accompaniment. There was nothing in the directions that stipulated it be Mozart’s Don Giovanni, but Chopin certainly chose a snippet from the opera with lots of emotional material to work with.

So in writing about the introduction, theme, five variations that make up this piece, there could hardly be a better discussion of the piece than the one found here, and I’d suggest you just… go read that. I’ll try not to regurgitate too much of it here.
The introduction is quite dark at the beginning, but this maybe shouldn’t be surprising, as the opening to Don Giovanni is also quite heavy. Things get a bit softer when the piano enters. Aside from the final variation, this introduction is the longest section of the piece, and I feel right from the entrance of the piano that although we are using Mozart as our jumping-off point, the piano writing is idiomatically Chopin. Unmistakably so. But remember, at the time, no one knew that. He was a young not-even-twenty year-old-composer/pianist who kind of jumped onto the scene with this outrageously successful homework assignment.
Most of the introduction sounds like it could quite easily be the middle movement of a piano concerto: it’s lyrical, melodic, and the orchestra (as with Chopin’s concertos) takes a very pretty backseat, but there are times when, for example, bassoon or flute kind of reach out and can be heard above the ensemble. The introduction is apparently to express the two extremes of emotion epitomized in the opera itself, that of expectation and anxiety.
The end of the introduction sounds like something out of an early Romantic version of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto leading attacca into the third movement, but it doesn’t. The sudden shift is a subtle one, presenting on a shiny beautiful platter the theme in its most straightforward form. There’s not a lot of life or excitement in it until the very end when the orchestra has a moment to play it out in a fuller capacity, jumping right into the real virtuosic brillante first variation.
If there was any question of the pianist behind the work, the first theme makes very clear to modern audiences its authorship. It’s that perfect balance of frightening virtuosity and sweet lyricism that Chopin’s music seems almost always to have. The style brillante was a ‘sparkling and showy style’ that I associate with the early Romantic era, more overtly decadent than the classical era, but not quite as rawly emotional as what would come later.
The second variation is prestissimo ‘but accurately,’ and it does seem a technical challenge. You’d be excused for believing that these variations were etudes based on Mozart’s song, especially this one, in which, while the theme is still expertly visible, the piano buzzes along with hardly a minute to breathe or a split second to give to the orchestra, who doesn’t come in until the very end of this variation, putting on the brakes for the third variation.
The third variation is solo piano, and is kind of … a combination of the previous two. The theme is more obviously presented in the right hand (as with the first variation) but the left hand stays busy the entire time in the manner of the second variation. The orchestra again enters to close out this section.
The fourth variation is perhaps not as busy as the previous, but is another one of those things that Chopin would do later, especially in his etudes, with the hands playing in multiple voices. The article linked above says this variation is written as if for violin, and I can hear it. It’s a very ornamented variation. The ritornello that’s appeared at the end of every variation takes on a different form now, as a last set of fireworks before the big final variation, the largest chunk of this piece.
It opens with a big dramatic crash, much more similar to the dramatic opening of the introduction. This variation is by far the most unique, fully-formed, moving, and spectacular of all of them. It feels, not like an episode, a small block of a bigger whole, but of a standalone performance piece, and there is plenty of pianistic virtuosity to go along with it. It is dramatic, dark, tragic, with a haunting trinkly ringing-of-bells line in the upper right hand that is so delicately placed. It turns sweet for a nostalgic, tender passage, not entirely void of the gravity from the earlier section. It’s extremely effective, captivating writing, especially from a seventeen-eighteen year old.
Then there’s a surprising and almost out-of-place alla polacca, a polonaise for the finale.
I would say that this is a quite successful piece, not just in its ‘prettiness’, but also in the fact that in this eighteen minutes or so of material, we stick quite closely to one easily identifiable theme, but balance that sameness/familiarity with newness and excitement so we don’t get tired of it too soon. It’s a nice balance.
That all said, this piece could be said to mark the beginning of two careers: Chopin’s obviously, as it was so successful at its first performance (with the composer at the piano) that the applause interfered with the performance: “everyone clapped so loudly after each variation that I had difficulty hearing the orchestral tutti.”
The second, though, was Robert Schumann, whose interesting multiple-personality, ‘fictionalized characters having a discussion’-style music critic career began with this piece and the famous “Hats off, gentlemen – a genius!” remark from Eusebius as quoted at the top of this article, beginning a long career of reviews and admiration of Chopin’s music. The entire original review, in both German and translated into English, can be found here.
The piece was also reviewed by Schumann’s future father-in-law, Friedrich Wiecz, who apparently analyzed every bar of the piece in the context of Mozart’s opera, representing some action between the characters or attributing some symbolism to it from the original work. While this I’m sure was flattering, Chopin was not impressed, and went so far as to prevent the lengthy analysis (and commendation) from being translated into and published in French, referring to it as the imagination of that … stubborn German.” Okay then.
I continue to quote the Wikipedia article:

Wieck also had his 12-year-old daughter Clara study the work for public performance, and it became a staple of her early repertoire. In her diary of 8 June 1831 (coincidentally Robert Schumann’s 21st birthday), she wrote: Chopin’s Variations Op. 2, which I learned in eight days, is the hardest piece I have ever seen or played till now. This original, brilliant composition is still so little known that almost every pianist and teacher considers it incomprehensible and impossible to play.[9] In Kassel, Louis Spohr turned pages for her as she played them.[10] Clara Wieck would later become Schumann’s wife, despite the vehement opposition of her father.

Interesting history and connections surrounding this very successful homework assignment. I’m sure Elsner must have been pleased with himself and his student, but nothing anywhere said anything about that. What a tangled web we weave.
Anyway, Chopin quickly gained fame and attention with this work, and it seems to be what propelled him into much of his career, but had it not been this piece, it would have been another, I feel. I think it’s quite endearing to read about him writing home to his parents about his success. The young Chopin.
We will be back tomorrow for more early Chopin, perhaps not surprisingly with his opus 3.
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