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About this Piece

As good luck would have it, Witold Lutosławski did not spend World War II in a German prison camp, even though his status as a minor officer in the Polish Army would have normally assured it. Instead, when Poland was invaded (Soviets from the east and Nazis from every other direction) and he was initially captured, he managed an escape on foot to his home in Warsaw 400 kilometers away. Although this left him without an official identity for the rest of the war, he managed to make ends meet teaming up with local cabaret performers and playing in small clubs. Larger music venues in Nazi-occupied Warsaw were more carefully monitored.

Making the best of an otherwise intolerable situation, another pianist and composer destined to be a giant of Polish music after the war, Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991), formed a piano duo with Lutosławski. The two composers performed in a handful of popular and famous nightclubs for the next few years, with Lutosławski arranging over 200 pieces for them.

Finally, in anticipation of the momentous and devastating 1944 Warsaw Uprising (which led to the Nazis systematically demolishing 85 percent of the city and executing several hundreds of thousands of people), both Lutosławski and Panufnik wisely fled to less populated areas, taking with them only their most essential possessions. Among the few music scores that Lutosławski managed to carry out to safety (all others now presumed destroyed), only one was from the 200 arrangements for his piano duo: Variations on a Theme by Paganini (1941).

Part humorous parody and part furious display of virtuosity, this theme and eleven variations, with an added twelfth variation and finale, pokes fun at the fact that even a nightclub audience will probably recognize the catchy tune from the 24th Caprice by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). An abrupt tempo change in variation six proves to be an embellishment compared to the original, although this also reflects that over the centuries countless different versions of this Caprice have been created.   

Further humor derives from exploiting that the original Caprice serves the primary purpose of showcasing a catalogue of effects only playable on a violin. The pianists nonetheless mimic at least symbolically pizzicato, harmonics, double stops, and other effects proceeding moment to moment through each of the original variations, polychords, and other dissonant anachronisms ironically compensating for the faux instrumental character.

— Gregg Wager