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It is paradoxical that in the oeuvre of Chopin-a past master of variation technique-works which the composer titled "variations" are but few in number and generally on the margins of his output. In Chopin's music, variation technique is virtually omnipresent (Lat. variatio: variant, variety; Chopin rarely repeats a melody, ornament or accompaniment figure without varying it!). Yet he gave the name "variations" to only two opuses (Opp. 2 and 12). His other variations are works from the margins of his oeuvre, occasional pieces not infrequently inspired by some external circumstances rather than any inner imperative on the part of the composer.

Chopin composed all his works in this genre during his youthful years, in the Warsaw period and the early years in Paris. These were times when the form of virtuoso variations, written to popular, well-known themes, belonged to the canon of fashionable piano literature. Hence the close links of Chopin's variations with the dazzling, virtuoso style brillant. Very fond of this style in his youth, Chopin created variations that were pianistically effective and formally deft, but most often highly superficial in expression. Many of them were not published until after his death.

Of his eight works in the form of variations, the Variations in B flat major, Op. 2, on "Là ci darem la mano" from Mozart's Don Giovanni [see Works for piano and orchestra] stand out for their artistic depth and maturity. Chopin's early output in this domain contained several works. In 1824, the fourteen-year-old Fryderyk composed Variations in E major on the theme of the German song "Steh' auf, steh' auf o du Schweitzer Bub", comprising an effective Introduction à la Hummel, four simple variations and a finale in the form of a superficial salon waltz (Tempo di Valse).

The year 1826 brought Variations in D major on the theme of an Irish song by Moore, convergent with the melody to the Neapolitan song "La Ricciolella". This striking work was preserved incomplete, and was reconstructed by Jan Ekier (pub. 1965). We also know that at a similar time (1827) Chopin wrote another composition for four hands: Variations in F major, dedicated to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski (lost; only the incipit has survived).

An untitled work, usually referred to as Souvenir de Paganini, consists of variations in the key of A major (Variants, composed 1829), again to the theme of "La Ricciolella". This time, however, it is a compositional echo of the performances in Warsaw, in 1829, of the famous Paganini, applauded by the then nineteen-year-old Chopin. The concept of this work is unusual: four ornamental variations are accompanied by a relentlessly invariant and extremely simple left-hand part. Chopin would return to this idea, here set out so modestly, years later, creating that brilliant example of variations the Berceuse, Op. 57. Also dating from the Warsaw period are Variations in E major on a theme from Rossini's La Cenerentola for flute and piano, attributed to Chopin (although this is not documented).

In the 1830s, in Paris, Chopin returned to variations on two further occasions. In 1833 he composed Variations in B flat major, Op. 12, on the theme ‘Je vends des Scapulaires' from the Hérold/Halévy opera Ludovic. This work, elegant, sparkling and of shallow expression, is regarded as a further nod in the direction of the style brillant, this time in the ‘Parisian' style, bringing little to his oeuvre.

The depth of a personal utterance marks out the short, single Variation in E major on the theme of a march from Bellini's I puritani, written in 1837 and incorporated into Hexameron-a collection of six variations on the Bellini theme by Thalberg, Liszt, Pixis, Herz, Czerny and Chopin. Chopin's composition is distinguished among the virtuosic and superficial variations of Hexameron by its lyricism and reflectiveness.

Artur Bielecki