Vronsky & Babin in the morning

Yesterday morning, up and brushing my teeth, the name Vronsky & Babin came to me unbidden. At first I thought Vronsky must be the Count Vronsky of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, but I was baffled by Babin (some transformation of the writer Isaac Babel?), and in any case the pairing sounded vaguely familiar. I went to the computer and discovered that V&B were indeed familiar, though I don’t think I’d heard about them for decades: a great duo-piano team of the last century.

But why had their names popped into my head? There turned out to be a clear answer, involving intricacies of memory and the unconscious.

Vronsky and Babin. From Wikipedia:

(#1) 1962 recording; note the Lutosławski, for two pianos, four hands

Vronsky & Babin were regarded by many as one of the foremost duo-piano teams of the twentieth century. Vitya Vronsky (Viktoria Mikhailovna Vronskaya, 22 August 1909 – 28 June 1992) was born in Yevpatoria (then part of the Russian Empire, now part of the annexed territory of Crimea in Ukraine). Victor Babin (Viktor Genrikhovich Babin, 13 December 1908 – 1 March 1972) was born in Moscow, Russia. They both died in Cleveland, Ohio

Ok, they were old musical acquaintances. Why did I think of them yesterday morning?

As it happens, what was playing on my iTunes feed overnight when I woke up was an album of wonderfully showy music by Louis Moreau Gottschalk — specifically his Le Bananier, Chanson nègre, Op. 5. From this recording:


Without thinking about it consciously, I recognized the music as Gottschalk, and not just Gottschalk, but Gottschalk four-hand piano music. With that lodged in my unconscious, my memory took me to Vronsky & Babin (rather than Marks & Barrett, whose names I don’t think I’ve stashed in memory).

(My 5/20/17 posting “Brainless Tales, with more news for penises” has a section on Gottschalk’s Le Bananier and on the flamboyant composer.)

Variations on the Paganini Caprice 24. Background in a 7/5/13 piece in the Guardian by Stephen Hough, “On the art of variation: why Paganini’s theme is so popular”:

From Liszt to Lutosławski, composers have so often turned to Paganini’s Caprice No 24 for inspiration – with satisfying and scintillating results

If sonata form is about the process of reaching a destination, variation form is more about taking pleasure in the journey itself. While sonata form explores material through argument – contrasting ideas thrashed out and eventually synthesised – variation form is more about one unopposed idea being explored, mined, twisted and turned in a monologue of elaboration.

When instruments began to sing alone without voices and when that music began to be written down, variation was the commonest form by which short musical ideas were extended. A catchy tune could be pinned down and strung along by repetition and embellishment. By the classical era, sonata form had been invented and eventually became ubiquitous, but writing sets of variations remained a rich source of expression for composers.

Variation sets are usually lighter in intellectual substance than a composers’s greatest works, decoration more than architecture, but occasionally a composer will reach beyond the superficiality of the form to find the greatest heights of inspiration and a Goldberg [by Bach] or a Diabelli [by Beethoven] is born. It is as if the greatest minds, when released from the necessity to think through a complex problem, can show something of the blinding, unwitting intricacy of their subconscious as they deal with something simple and straightforward. It’s often called genius.

Paganini’s Caprice No 24 has been used by so many composers as a theme to be varied for a number of reasons. It is written in the clean, white-note key of A minor – a pure starting point – and exposes the bare bones of its tonal simplicity: a textbook example of classical harmony, it shifts rhythmically from tonic to dominant and back, like a tennis ball over a net. In the second half of the theme, we hear a circle of fifths, the harmonic progression without which much of Bach and most of Vivaldi – not to mention countless popular songs, such as “Windmills of Your Mind” and Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” – would never have been written. As well as giving the music a strangely poignant effect, it allows it to shift instantly and infallibly to a more expressive vein. Finally, Paganini’s theme cuts a dashing rhythmic shape as its melody repeatedly turns on itself with a swagger and clip of the heel. All points that make this musical material eminently suitable for variation.

Liszt, in 1838, while Paganini was still alive, merely took the Caprice and transcribed it for piano, but soon afterwards many others (notably Brahms but curiously not Schumann, despite publishing some Paganini transcriptions) used the theme as a springboard for their own musical ideas. And thus it became iconic, a Madonna and Child that all those who painted had to paint. By the early 20th century, composers and pianists such as Ignaz Friedman and Mark Hambourg (not to mention the virtuoso violinists Eugène Ysaÿe and Nathan Milstein) had taken the theme and covered it with their fingerprints.

When, in 1934, Rachmaninov began to write his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, his composing career was in decline, at least in the eyes of audiences and critics. Since leaving Russia for the west, he had written little and his Fourth Piano Concerto (1926) had flopped. His (over)ripe Romanticism was out of fashion; modernism held all the cards. But then, in the postwar, palette-cleansing neoclassicism of composers such as Stravinsky and Prokofiev, perhaps Rachmaninov saw new possibilities. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was his take on this aesthetic – or at least, his way of using a classical theme as a launching pad.

Many who have no affection for Rachmaninov still admire this piece. It is a formal miracle: a set of 24 variations held together as if it were a mini piano concerto, but with the carefree unfolding of a rhapsody. The overall structure is completely satisfying, and its composite parts – the small decorative, inventive details of its variations – are scintillating.

In addition to Paganini’s theme, there is the constantly recurring spectre of the Dies Irae, the plainchant melody from the requiem mass, famously brought into the concert hall by Berlioz 100 years earlier in his Symphonie fantastique and a much-used theme in its own right. In Rachmaninov’s work, this musical symbol of doom and judgment is like cement in the mosaic, giving stability, strength and a certain seriousness to the kaleidoscopic variations on Paganini’s theme.

Lutosławski’s Paganini Variations returned to the work’s origins. The Polish composer cooks the same meal as Paganini but adds a pinch of spice to each course, transforming the plain harmonies into piquant, exotic flavours. It was originally written in 1941 for two pianos and presents a dizzy dialogue of antiphony as snapping rhythms and pianistic glitter are tossed from one keyboard to the other in an exchange of witticisms. An orchestra-and-piano version, composed in 1978, saw the dialogue less clearly defined, but the palette of different instruments allowed Lutosławski to dazzle with unexpected colours and varied textures.

The Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Lutosławski are the monuments to the glories of the Caprice 24. Originally solo piano, piano and orchestra, and two-piano compositions, respectively. From Wikipedia on the Brahms:

Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 35, is a work for piano composed in 1863 by Johannes Brahms, based on the Caprice No. 24 in A minor by Niccolò Paganini.

Brahms intended the work to be more than simply a set of theme and variations; each variation also has the characteristic of a study. He published it as Studies for Pianoforte: Variations on a Theme of Paganini. It is uncharacteristically showy for Brahms, even Lisztian. Indeed, the work was composed for the piano virtuoso Carl Tausig.

It is well known for its emotional depth and technical challenges. David Dubal describes it as “a legend in the piano literature,” and “fiendish,” “one of the most subtly difficult works in the literature.”Clara Schumann called it Hexenvariationen (Witch’s Variations) because of its difficulty.

And from Wikipedia on the Rachmaninoff:

The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, is a concertante work written by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is written for solo piano and symphony orchestra, closely resembling a piano concerto. The work was written at his Villa, the Villa Senar, in Switzerland, according to the score, from July 3 to August 18, 1934. Rachmaninoff himself, a noted interpreter of his own works, played the solo piano part at the piece’s premiere at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 7, 1934 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Rachmaninoff, Stokowski, and the Philadelphia Orchestra made the first recording, on December 24, 1934,

… The piece is a set of 24 variations on the twenty-fourth and last of Niccolò Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin, which has inspired works by several composers.

I got into the Paganini Caprice via the Lutosławski variations for two pianos, and that’s what I’ll focus on now. The background on the composer and the remarkable history of this composition, from Wikipedia:

Witold Roman Lutosławski (25 January 1913 – 7 February 1994) was a Polish composer and orchestral conductor. He was one of the major European composers of the 20th century, and one of the preeminent Polish musicians during his last three decades. … His compositions (of which he was a notable conductor) include four symphonies, a Concerto for Orchestra, a string quartet, instrumental works, concertos, and orchestral song cycles.

… Lutosławski left Warsaw in July 1944 with his mother, merely a few days before the Warsaw Uprising, salvaging only a few scores and sketches — the rest of his music was lost during the complete destruction of the city by Germans after the fall of uprising, as were the family’s Drozdowo estates. Of the 200 or so arrangements that Lutosławski and [Andrzej] Panufnik had worked on for their piano duo, only Lutosławski’s Paganini Variations survived. Lutosławski returned to the ruins of Warsaw after the Polish-Soviet treaty in April 1945.

You can listen to the Vronsky & Babin performance here. And watch a video of a stunning 2003 performance by Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire here.

It’s packed with astonishing shifts in rhythms and harmonies, and like the Brahms and Rachmaninoff, it’s technically a great challenge — as befits Paganini’s virtuouso original.

(After you watch this Argerich & Freire collaboration, you might want to look into other of their two-piano performances (especially of just about anything by Rachmaninoff). Separately, the Argentianian-born Argerich and Brazilian-born Freire are extraordinary musicians, and they fit together beautifully.)

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