The Variations in B flat major on ‘Là ci darem la mano’, Op. 2 are Chopin’s characteristic reaction to Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Thanks to these Variations, Chopin’s fame spread across central Europe. They first moved Robert Schumann, whose youthful review – the first that he wrote – in a Leipzig music periodical, entitled ‘Opus Zwei’ [Opus 2], has acquired a lasting place in music history. That review was written in a fictional style (a device that Schumann would frequently employ): ‘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!’
Chopin composed the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations in 1827. As a student of the Main School of Music, he had received from Elsner another compositional task: he had to write variations for piano with orchestral accompaniment. As his theme, he chose the famous duet between Zerlina and Don Giovanni from the first act of Mozart’s opera – the one in which overwhelming power and faultless seduction meet maidenly naivety and barely controlled fascination.
Chopin’s ‘Là ci darem’ Variations received a Classical form: introduction, theme, five variations and finale. They were pianistically expressed through the style brillant, of which they became a wonderfully representative work. But at the same time they showed signs of romanticism in the air: it emerged with full force in the fifth variation, but Romantic accents had already appeared in the introduction.
The introduction proceeds slowly, at a tempo defined as Largo. It sets the tone, and it is a tone far from that which Mozart bestowed on the duet of this couple of would-be lovers. ‘Là ci darem la mano’ radiates the tenderness and joy of expectancy, boldness and anxiety (in Chopin’s day, the first words were ‘Cast off vain fears!’). In Chopin’s introduction, it is gravity, or even gloom, that reigns. Intertwined here are restraint and explosion, a sense of lurking and pouncing, and moments of nocturne-like lyricism. Zdzisław Jachimecki may well have been right in discerning in the introduction ‘the outline of the drama in audacious epitome’, a collision between ‘the two poles of Mozart’s opera: the cheerful and romantic with the demonic. Anyone who knows Don Giovanni’, adds Jachimecki, ‘will understand perfectly what Chopin wished to express here’.
The theme itself appears suddenly and unexpectedly, led by a passage played con forza and prestissimo (with force and with the utmost speed). It is cheerful, like in the Mozart, though perhaps with a hint of mist, as it is shifted from a sharp key (A major) to a flat one (B flat major). The piano begins mezza voce and semplice (in half-voice and simply).
Chopin gave both the theme and each of the variations orchestral complements. That thunderous tutti may even irritate: it is somewhat primitive, a bit like music in the open air on a Sunday afternoon. The premiere of the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations took place in Vienna, during Chopin’s first concert, in August 1829. The orchestral ritornel accompanied the applause with which the young pianist was received. ‘After playing each variation’, Chopin declared with a degree of pride in a letter to his parents, ‘there were such ovations that I couldn’t hear the orchestra’s tutti’.
The theme is followed by variations. The first four bring successive modifications to the theme, consisting in its ‘diminution’, or breaking-up. The quavers of the theme are replaced with semiquavers, demisemiquavers and even hemidemisemiquavers. But at the same time each of the variations is marked by a different character and expression.
Chopin gave the first variation the character of a style brillant miniature. He clarified this verbally in the score. He bade the second variation skip along at the quickest possible tempo. It has the character of music defined as moto perpetuo, in regular, constant motion. Chopin gave the third variation to the solo piano. It became an etude, in which an echo of the theme presented in the right hand is heard against the incessant motion of the left. Chopin wrote the fourth variation twice, as he was not satisfied with his original idea. On the manuscript, he deleted the precisely written page and added the new version on the blank pages at the end. He instructed this variation to be played con bravura. It gives the impression of a piece written not for piano but for violin. Soon, however, this very kind of music would appear among Chopin’s Etudes.
The orchestra’s ritornel between variations IV and V suddenly alters its shape and expression, as if it wished to announce the appearance of the fifth variation. Despite this, that variation is wholly surprising. So much has been written about this adagio that it would suffice for a small anthology. The first voice would be that of Schumann, who wrote: ‘the adagio […] is in B flat minor, as it should be, for it is almost a moral warning to Don Juan against his plan. It is both mischievous and suitable that […] the B flat major, in all its fullness, should accurately designate the first kiss of love.’ Friedrich Wieck, father of the then very young Clara, Schumann’s future wife, gave much greater rein to his fantasy. Nota bene, it is to Clara that Chopin owed the Variations’ wide popularity in Germany. She played them with great success in many of her concerts. Professor Wieck was utterly fascinated with this work and attempted to explain every moment in terms of some particular scene from Mozart’s opera.
Ludwik Erhardt has discovered that it was Wieck’s review (and not – as previously thought – Schumann’s) which reached Chopin’s attention and prompted that well-known reaction in which wit intermingles with frivolity: ‘I have received from Kassel, from a certain German, a ten-page review’, wrote Chopin to Tytus Woyciechowski, ‘where, after a vast preamble he sets about dissecting [the Variations] bar by bar. He explains that it is some fantastical tableau. Of the second Variation, he says that Don Juan is running with Leporello, of the third that he is squeezing Zerlina and that Masetto – in the left hand – is angry, of the fifth bar of the adagio he declares that Don Juan is kissing Zerlina in D flat major. To die from a German’s imagination!’ One may well laugh at such fancy, but one must admire the enthusiasm and intuition. After all, the old professor also wrote: ‘In his Variations, Chopin brought out all the wildness and impertinence of the Don’s life and deeds, filled with danger and amorous adventures. And he did so in the most bold and brilliant way’.
The adagio is followed attacca by the finale. Mozart’s theme is arrayed in the rhythms of a dashing polonaise, full of brilliance and bravura. It drew gasps from Schumann, for whom everything that went before was ‘nothing compared to the last […] Leporello’s voice between the grasping, snatching spirits; the fleeing Don Juan – and then the end’.
‘At the end, there was so much clapping’, Chopin related to his parents following his first Vienna concert, ‘that I had to come out and bow again’. ‘I know the ladies and artists took a liking to me’. And he was heard by the entire musical elite of Vienna, with Czerny and Gyrowetz to the fore. The Variations were also to the liking of the Viennese publisher Tobias Haslinger. They were published less than a year after the concert, with a dedication to Tytus Woyciechowski on the cover. In May 1830, Chopin informed his friend: ‘Haslinger was taken them to Leipzig for the Easter Fair’. They went forth into the world, causing further ripples of enthusiasm. Only Ludwik Rellstab, Chopin’s sworn antagonist, called the ‘Là ci darem’ Variations a product of the vandalism wrought by the Slavic composer on Mozart’s masterpiece.
Author: Mieczysław Tomaszewski
[Cykl audycji "Fryderyka Chopina Dzieła Wszystkie"]
Polish Radio, program II