• Witold Lutosławski
  • Variations on a Theme by Paganini [Wariacje ne temat Paganiniego], for two pianos (1941)

  • Chester Music Ltd (Worldwide except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of former Czechoslovakia, Croatia, former territories of Yugoslavia, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Hungary and countries of former USSR)

Chester Music is the publisher of this work in all territories except Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, China, countries of the former Czechoslovakia, countries of the former Yugoslavia, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Hungary and the whole territory of the former USSR, where the copyright is held by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM).

  • two pianos
  • 6 min

Programme Note


Witold Lutoslawski began his career as a composer shortly before the Second World War, which disrupted it. During the German occupation of Poland, Polish cultural life went underground. Lutoslawski and his friend Panufnik played piano duets in a Warsaw café; since the Germans had banned public concerts, serious music-making could only be heard in cafes. The duo made some two hundred arrangements, from Bach organ works to Debussy and Ravel; and included in that repertoire was Lutoslawski’s two piano transcription of Paganini’s ‘Caprice No 24’.

The well-known ‘Caprice’, which has served several other composers (Brahms and Rachmaninov among them), is the last of a set which must have been complete by 1817, but which probably included pieces of earlier date. Paganini’s autograph numbers eleven variations and a finale, making twelve in all. Lutoslawski follows this scheme closely in his two-piano version, but has added, right from the outset, a harmonic dimension embracing a chromatically spiced tonality, if not a gently clashing polytonality. In 1977, the composer revised this composition as a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra at the request of the pianist, Felicja Blumental, who gave the first performance two years later, in Miami, with the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.

© Felix Aprahamian
August 1982


During the German occupation of Poland, Andrezj Panufnik and I played unofficial concerts of two-piano music in Warsaw. This was the origin of these Variations which we first performed in 1941. As a basis I took Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin and my Variations closely follow his model. In each Variation I translate the violin line for the keyboard. Polyharmony often occurs between the two keyboards but tonality remains a clear force with frequent traditional dominant-tonic cadences.

In 1977, I was asked by the pianist Felicja Blumental for a composition and revised these Variations as a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. It expands the piano-duo piece by repeating each section (apart from the theme itself and Variations 10 and 11), with the soloist and orchestra exchanging roles for the second playing of each Variation. Otherwise there is very little change in the musical substance. Blumental gave the first performance of the new version in Miami on 18 November 1979 with Brian Priestman conducting the Florida Philharmonic Orchestra.

© Witold Lutoslawski


Variations on a Theme by Paganini


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