Variations on a Theme of Paganini
spent the years of the German occupation earning his living as a pianist.
Initially, he performed on his own, then later in a piano duo with Andrzej
Panufnik (1914-1991), his friend from the conservatory who also became a
distinguished composer. Their repertoire included mainly transcriptions of
well-known symphonic works as well as improvisations. Following some advice by a
fellow musician in 1941, Lutosławski wrote a transcription of Paganini’s
popular Caprice in A minor, op. 1 No. 24 for violin solo.
His Variations are a paraphrase, not an original composition, like Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini or Boris Blacher’s Variations on the same theme. The theme from the Paganini Caprice is not accompanied by versions created by Lutosławski, but by those comprising the original work. The paraphrase consisted in recomposing them, as with a version of the Caprice for violin and piano composed by Szymanowski in his op. 40.
Lutosławski made sure that the original would be enriched in its harmony and texture. What emerged is a spicy composition, a display of pianistic and compositional virtuosity. Such music might have been composed by Paganini had he lived in the times of Bartók and Szymanowski, and had he become a pianist and, most importantly, a composer with Lutosławski’s talent.
With time the Variations became a great hit, becoming part of the repertoire of the important piano duos in the world. Today they are the composer’s most performed work. Lutosławski made a transcription for piano and orchestra in 1977.