Variations on a Polish Folk Theme in B minor op. 10 (1900-1904)

Variations on a Polish Folk Theme in B minor op. 10, completed in 1904 and dedicated to Professor Zygmunt Noskowski, constitute the second, after Variations in B flat minor op. 3, cycle of piano variations dating from the period of Szymanowski’s studies in Warsaw. The theme’s melody, taken from the work by Jan Kleczyński entitled. O muzyce podhalańskiej [On the Music of Podhale] (1988), is in fact only seemingly a “folk theme”, being an amateurish adaptation of an authentic song from Podhale. According to Adolf Chybiński, a professor of musicology at Lvov University (who, we might note in passing, got the composer truly interested in the music of that region in 1920), “when after many years Szymanowski heard its original from the mountain region, he had difficulty in recognising its link to the melody given by Kleczyński, – its rhythm, contour and metre had been totally spoilt”.
Variations in B minor thus foreshadow Szymanowski’s later fascination with folklore only in a slight degree. Above all, in keeping with the other piano works from that period, they provide evidence of the creative quest by the adept of the art of composition, immersing himself in the secrets of the techniques of the masters from the past. The cycle opens with a nine-bar introduction modelled on Chopin’s variations, where we find the motifs of the theme. After the chromatically harmonised melody of the theme, there follow ten variations on that theme, differentiated according to tempo, texture and expression. Apart from traditional ornamental-figurative variations, in which the theme is modified only to demonstrate the pianist’s virtuoso brilliance, we also find the so-called characteristic variations, which bring a far-reaching expressive transformation of the original model. The latter include: variation VIII (Funeral March), based on a dissonance ostinato figure in bass, and the final variation X, containing a skillfully crafted four-voice fugue.
Like Variations in B flat minor op. 3, Variations in B minor should be regarded as a work largely rooted in the Romantic musical tradition. As an aspect of Szymanowski’s maturing original talent as a composer, above all they document the period of mastering the academic education, limited by numerous constraints. In this case – apart from a good mark by his professor – these consisted in meeting the demands of the great cyclic form, and the whole tradition of nineteenth-century piano playing, for which it was the virtuoso variations par excellence which provided the measure of the genius of the solo artist.