Variations in B flat minor op. 3 (1901-1903)

The cycle of twelve variations on Szymanowski’s own theme was composed during the years 1901-1903, while he was studying with Zygmunt Noskowski in Warsaw. The composition is in the late Romantic style, echoing the tradition of the nineteenth-century maestros of piano music, above all Robert Schumann and Ferenc Liszt. The majority of the variations are of strikingly virtuoso character, emanating with the brilliance of great piano playing, and demonstrating young Szymanowski’s perfect intuition for the technical and timbral possibilities of the piano.
Rich harmony, strongly saturated with chromaticisms, indicates that the composer was by then standing at the edge of the major-minor tonal system, and only a step away from creating his own, new musical language. In their formal aspect, Variations in B flat minor respect the traditional model of the genre. The tuneful theme, saturated with nostalgic expression, has a periodic structure; it is followed by a cycle of symmetrical and texturally differentiated variations, until the clear culmination in the final variation, extended by a spectacular coda. The most original is variation III (Andantino quasi tempo di mazurka), which introduces a stylisation of a Polish folk dance and thus, in a sense, foreshadows the much later Mazurkas op. 50.
Against the background of Szymanowski’s youthful works, Variations in B flat minor have the appearance of “school homework” composition – largely conventional, shaped on the one hand by the professor’s guidance and, on the other, the dilemmas of a student overcoming technical problems as he tries to master the techniques of a traditonal cyclic form, and to this end assimilates the models established by the masters of the past. In terms of freshness, inventiveness and direct expressiveness, they take second place to the earlier opuses, ie., the piano preludes and etudes written in Tymosz√≥wka.