completed his composition studies at the Warsaw Conservatory in 1937. The Variations
were to be his graduation work, but the piece proved too modern for Witold
Maliszewski, his composition professor.
The young composer stopped working on the score and composed fairly
conservative music to two fragments of the funeral mass. Lack of approval on
the part of his professor, otherwise an excellent teacher and very well disposed
to his pupil, combined with personal problems to drive Lutosławski into
depression, which ended only with his military service of several months.
After returning home in 1938, the composer felt a surge of creative powers and quickly finished the Variations. The work’s premiere, conducted by Grzegorz Fitelberg in spring 1939 at the Polish Radio then in the courtyard of Wawel Castle in Kraków, was considered by the composer his official debut.
The score testifies to the 26-year-old Lutosławski’s magnificent skill and great familiarity with contemporary repertoire. In his brilliant use of the orchestra, Lutosławski rivals Szymanowski in the Violin Concerto No. 1 and the ballet Harnasie and early Stravinsky works such as Feu d'artifice and Scherzo fantastique.
The musical “plot” of the work consists in showing a simple, folk-like theme in various textural settings: a melody with a simple or complex accompaniment, dialogues of orchestral groups, imitation. The full piece comprises a theme and nine variations grouped in four larger sections. The first of these, slow, contains the theme and the initial variation, in which we hear Szymanowski’s influence; this could have been written by the composer of Harnasie at the age of 60! In the lively second section, three consecutive variations display dialogues between groups of instruments. In the third section’s slow variations (number six and seven), the listener’s attention is drawn by the flute solo accompanied by piano, percussion and strings. The finale contains two presentations of the theme: The main melody is used as material for imitation by oboe, clarinet and bassoon, then toward the end it is played solemnly by the brass against lively playing by the other instruments.