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Unlike the other works on this program, the Variations on a Polish Theme, Op. 10, by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) are a youthful extravagance. Szymanowski was in his late teens when he arrived in Warsaw in 1901 and began composition lessons with Zygmunt Noskowski, to whom he dedicated these Variations. The work seems to have been completed by 1904, and received its premiere in 1906 on a concert featuring music by Young Poland in Music, a small activist group of composers that Szymanowski helped found.
Understandably Chopin-besotted at the time, Szymanowski was also much influenced by Scriabin, whose own early music was similarly indebted to Chopin. He launches these B-minor Variations with a sad little introduction, Scriabin evident in its restless chromaticism and Chopin in the five-against-four filigree. The Theme itself – prefigured in the introduction – begins with a modal statement of the main melodic material in soft octaves, although the descending chromatic slither that quickly follows will be equally important.
Ten connected variations follow, the first nine of which are diverse A-B-A miniatures. Variation VI takes us to sweet B major, and Variation VII (also in B major) is a lightly rustling metrical experiment, with the right hand in 9/16 and the left in 6/16. The eighth Variation is a doleful funeral march in the remote key of G minor. Variation IX, back in B major, is basically a prelude for the finale, which is a complex, triumphant monster nearly as long as the others combined. In many ways it is almost a parody of late Beethoven, filled with violent contrasts, mystical trilling, and broad spaces between the depths and the heights. There is even a buffo fugue on the theme, marked “mit Humor,” and a heroic coda to close.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.