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Orchestra-Variations on a Theme of Paganini

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Blacher
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Marek Janowski, conductor / Arabella Steinbacher, violin, plays Beethoven Mar. 28 - 30, 2013
© Peter Laki

Highly respected as a composer and teacher in Germany, where he lived from the age of nineteen until his death 53years later, Boris Blacher never achieved the international renown he deserved. Yet his colorful, witty, and perfectly crafted scores are worth hearing more often. Surely, there were not many composers who would have been able to see new possibilities in the 24th caprice for solo violin by Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), who had earlier inspired the likes of Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Lutoslawski. (Blacher, however, was not the last to make use of the famous theme: American composer Lowell Liebermann wrote his own Paganini Rhapsody for piano and orchestra in 2001.)

Blacher's catalog contains several successful operas and ballets as well as numerous orchestral and chamber works, in which one may detect influences of Stravinsky and
jazz. He is chiefly remembered today for his Paganini variations, which have been recorded several times over the years.

German musicologist H. H. Stuckenschmidt (1901-1988) offered a succinct but penetrating discussion of the work in his German-language book on the composer, first published in 1963:

[Blacher] wrote 16 variations, and in each one the theme is split up, shown in a new light, analyzed and alienated in rhythm and meter, and reduced to a skeleton. The modest harmonic vocabulary of the theme may be slightly expanded, and the musical processes transferred into distant registers as the time signatures go through extreme changes. Each orchestral section, and almost every single player within the sections, takes turns in the limelight either in solos or in chamber groupings; canonic and concerto-like forms of the greatest complexity are introduced with an effortless ease that erases every trace of academicism. Among the greatest compositional tours de force are Variation 13 with its seven-part canon for woodwind and brass; one of the most elegant ideas is the clarinet tango over the perfect fifth D-A as a double pedal (Variation 15). The Prestissimo of the last variation is the summit of agility and virtuosity in sound. Over each measure of this score, which is free from all ballast, there hovers an iridescent light; the music has the tender transparency of certain kinds of fish, in which one may see through skin and flesh all the way to the spinal column...