How I got to love Szymanowski’s Variations in B-flat minor, Op. 3

Many of the works I ended up playing, or just works that became some of my favorites, I initially didn’t quite like or understand. Sometimes, I decide to play a piece as soon as I hear it. At other times, however, a work may fail to arouse my interest at first hearing, but then I find myself going over it in my mind, purchasing the score, and eventually learning it. Such was my experience with Szymanowski’s Op. 3 Variations in B-flat minor. Not that I didn’t initially like it. I did, but I had no further interest in it. It struck me like a well-written piece of sumptuous Romantic music, more to my taste than, say, Brahms’s Handel Variations or Rachmaninoff’s Corelli Variations. But I had no intention of engaging with it any further. And yet here I am, having spent a month and a half practicing it intensely. How did this piece, which I got to know only recently, manage to grab my attention and climb to the top of my list of priorities? This is the question I attempt to answer here.

One of the most widely discussed qualities of great musical works is their particularity. Often we find ourselves saying things like “this could only be Beethoven,” or “from the first bar we know that only Wagner could have written something like this.” And for good reason. I can say that the composers who fascinate me most wholly correspond to this idea, and that I spend a significant amount of time thinking about the Haydn-ness of Haydn, the Schumann-ness of Schumann, the Bruckner-ness of Bruckner, and so on. But what if this uniqueness occasionally takes a slightly different form? What if a work doesn’t have a clear stylistic imprint, but rather combines elements from various styles in order to form its own narrative? 

During the classical period, many if not most variations followed a standard pattern of succession. After the theme, there were several variations usually in the same tempo, but where the note values of the main melodic line got smaller and smaller, hence the variations became successively faster. A slow and lyrical variation followed, often in a different time signature, which led into a virtuosic final variation. Even during the classical period, composers strayed from this template (most notably Beethoven), which means that by the time Szymanowski was writing this set (between 1901 and 1903), there have been a great many sets that deviated from this tradition. This didn’t make the deviations any less interesting, since every set finds its own way of straying from the traditional template. By the end of the Romantic period, the genre of Theme and Variations had gone out of fashion. Hence, composers who wrote variations adhered less and less to the original template.

I ascribe the uniqueness of this work to Szymanowski’s special way of deviating from the standard tradition of form.

The first association I hear in this piece is with Beethoven. After the theme, Szymanowski doesn’t depart much from the pattern: the first variation is marked L’istesso tempo and has the theme in the middle voice. This immediately reminds me of the last movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109, also a Theme and Variations. In the first variation of that movement, Beethoven diverges greatly, but in a different way, as the harmonic structure is entirely unlike that of the theme. In Beethoven’s hands, however, the theme and the first variation merge almost seamlessly. For a long time, before I opened the score of Op. 109, I thought that the first variation was part of a long theme, and only the second variation felt to me like an actual variation. Likewise, upon hearing Szymanowski’s Op. 3, I was under the impression that the second variation was the first⸺although in the back of my mind I knew that it wasn’t. Subconsciously, this gave me a sense of familiarity, because even though I didn’t know the piece, I was familiar with its effect.

I think it was this detail that made the piece linger in my mind for a long time after I heard it. My impression was that the compositional devices were more familiar than the composition, yet the work didn’t seem in the least unoriginal.

For example, upon hearing the sixth variation, the first association that came to my mind was the volando quality of Scriabin, in his mazurkas and other “salonic” works (such as the charming A-flat major waltz). The ninth variation, a waltz, reminded me greatly of Scriabin, yet it could not have been Scriabin. The edginess and eccentricity of Scriabin were absent, although there was a sense of wholeness on one hand and irony on the other. It took Szymanowski to create it.

By the eleventh variation, we have already heard a great deal: in the third variation, we heard a rustic mazurka full of foreign harmonies (perhaps a foretelling of his later mazurkas); after the stormy sixth and seventh variations, we bade farewell to the key of B-flat minor in the funereal eighth variation (albeit slightly ironic, as it is in 3/4 and not in 4, as a march would have to be); and we have even ventured into the somewhat distant key of G-flat major. We heard enough to forget that this set started with the first variation adhering to the standard template of variation form. The gentle and lyrical eleventh variation (in B-flat major) feels like a change of direction, back to the traditional succession of variations, and its character fulfills its duty as a penultimate variation. But does the last variation fulfill its own duty as a finale? Yes and no. On one hand, given that Szymanowski avoids the theme until the very end, and only hints at it subversively (once in the “wrong” key of G-flat major), it doesn’t behave as a proper finale. In fact, the absence of the theme in anything similar to its original form reminds me very much of the avoidance of the tonic in the equally subversive fourth variation. But on the other hand, the triumphant and exuberant ending of the last variation brings the work to an astonishingly rousing conclusion. And yet, Szymanowski doesn’t fall into a trap that many great composers failed to avoid when writing finales to variations: that of gratuitous heroism, an overdose of bombast when it is not needed. I have my own list of sets of variations whose finales fall into this category, but I need not roll it out here. I’ll leave you to make up your own list.

To me, this work’s uniqueness lies in the effect of mirage that it creates. The wonderful vignette Crows from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams begins with an art student in a gallery staring at a Van Gogh painting (The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing). After being magically drawn into its world and meeting a frustrated Van Gogh, (played by Martin Scorsese), the student drifts in the supernatural world of Van Gogh’s paintings, and eventually emerges from the scenery of Crows back into the gallery. In Szymanowski’s variations, we drift from tradition to deviation, from past to future, from earnestness to irony, and from sorrow to triumph in an equally wonderful mirage, which organically builds its own form and shape. The experience of this mirage stayed with me long after the work finished, which is the reason why I eagerly jumped right into it.   

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