Official Release: 16 July 2021
What is a theme with variations? Actually, this definition embodies one of the most common musical practices of all cultures throughout history and geography. Indeed, it arguably extends beyond the limits of human musicianship, since it has been proved that blackbirds have the habit of variating the musical formulas of their singing, and of appreciating the creativity and inventiveness with which new ideas are inserted in the old formulas.
And every music-making person has, at one time or another, felt the need of changing a minor aspect of a known tune; to add a small embellishment, for example, or to sing it in a mode different from the original one. Classical music knows of a specific genre, called “Theme with Variations”: it consists in a series of (normally) short pieces, directly descending from a common matrix, which is the theme. The theme may be an original idea by the composer, or a citation from another work by the same composer, by another (to whom the composer presumably wishes to pay homage), or by unknown musicians as in the case of themes coming from the folk tradition.
The degree of technical, compositional and musical complexity may vary dramatically from one set of variations to another; moreover, the variations composing the set may be rather similar to each other and to the theme, or almost unrecognizable, or groupable in pairs by virtue of an analogous musical idea.
Mozart composed numerous sets of variations, starting (as was usual for him) at a very young age. Probably, his masterpiece in this genre is a set of variations which was not originally composed for a keyboard instrument (although a delightful transcription does exist): it is the set of Variations which closes the magnificent Quintet for clarinet and strings, KV 581. Another beautiful set, on a tune similar to Papageno’s songs, is found as the third movement of Piano Concerto KV 453, while perhaps the most famous of Mozart’s Variation cycles is the one opening Piano Sonata KV 331. All of these sets, possibly not by chance, are based on themes written by Mozart himself.
However, even when he was employing models by other composers, he was able to create authentic masterpieces, as are those presented in this Da Vinci Classics album.
The earliest set of variations recorded here was written by Mozart at the ripe old age of ten. He was in The Hague, where his family took part in the celebrations honouring the coming of age of the Prince of Orange. There, they met Princess Weilburg, who immediately was conquered by the young boy’s talent and fantasy, and commissioned several works to the child prodigy. Two sets of Variations (KV 24 and 25) were thus composed. The theme employed in the set recorded here, KV 24, is excerpted from a Dutch song by C. Graaf, and Mozart clothes it with delicate ornaments and decorations, probably mirroring his improvisational practices. Although the result reveals the occasional quality of this work and the composer’s young age, the set is charming and offers opportunities for showing different technical skills and passageworks.
The second set of variations among those recorded here was composed many years later, in 1778, when Mozart was 22: an age we now consider very young, but we know that Mozart had been active as a composer for many years by then. Also in this case, the set originated abroad, and specifically during Mozart’s stay in Paris. Evidently, the French audience was fond of works in which virtuosity and inventiveness can be demonstrated, as often happens with Variations, and this set, numbered as KV 264, would not have disappointed them. The theme was chosen in order to please the audience: it is an air from an opéra comique, called Julie, by the French composer N. Dezède; the opera had been premiered in Paris on August 20th, 1778, and Mozart was shrewdly quick to ride the wave of its success. The elegance, irony, refined taste and brilliant musical ideas appreciated by the Parisian audience are never missing in this set of Variations; Mozart was a man of the stage and knew how to highlight his musical value in the ears of every specific audience.
From roughly the same period are also the Variations KV 265, this time written on a children’s tune, Ah vous dirai-je maman. The song’s words are ironic: a child reveals to his mother his “torment”. “Dad wants me to think as an adult”, he says; “And I think that bonbons are worthier than lessons” – which is an attitude shared by very many adults, to be sure.
Different from KV 264, this set is one of the best-known works by Mozart and of the most frequently played. Although E. T. A. Hoffmann would cite it as an example of the “Variationlets” genre, contrasting it with the serious character of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, these “Variationlets” have conquered pride of place in keyboard literature. Their engagingly simple theme, which corresponds to the naïve style of the children’s song, gives way to an overflowing of musical ideas and technical suggestions, thus making KV 265 one of the milestones of piano pedagogy as well as a favourite on the concert stage.
Another beloved cycle is KV 455, written when Mozart was at the height of his creative powers (1784), and during his Viennese period. On this occasion, the theme comes from an opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck, another genius composer who greatly appreciated Mozart and who was in turn admired by the much younger musician. This set represents the perfection of Mozart’s art of variating a theme, with contrapuntal refinements, musical expressivity, a large palette of affective and emotional states, irony and virtuosity, skill and brilliancy. He played this set on March 29th, 1785, during a soiree in which the Emperor himself was present, and he was asked to encore it with some impromptu variations.
The misleading KV numbering of the last set of Variations recorded here, KV 54, does not mirror their composition date, as they were presumably written in 1788, when the composer was 32 years old. This set is an arrangement of the third movement of Sonata KV 547, originally written for violin and piano (or, more precisely, for piano and violin). The Sonata is thematically connected with another very famous work by Mozart, the Sonata KV 545 “for beginners”; both are masterpieces of inventiveness and simplicity. This set of Variations pushes the boundaries of what had hitherto been Mozart’s practice when writing Variations; here the relationship between a Variation and the Theme is never obvious or patent, but rather it reveals a deep work of understanding and elaboration of the musical material.
Even though Mozart’s Variations normally belong to his “lighter” works (different from what had happened with Bach and would happen with Beethoven or Brahms, to cite but three), this does not imply that the result is banal or foreseeable. Their purpose is evidently that of entertaining the listener, and they are certainly related to his improvisational practices; he liked to display his creative powers and his technical mastery, which allowed him to imagine extemporaneously a number of possibilities for variating a theme. The audience were conquered by this spectacle no less than by the beauty of the musical result: clearly, the possibility of seeing a masterpiece germinating under the composer’s fingers was an unforgettable experience. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many of Mozart’s Variations – including the “Variationlets” – have become all-time favourites, and are still among the most loved works of keyboard literature.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2021
Alessandro Costantino Bianchi: He was born in 1993 in Latina (Italy) where at an early age, 6 years old, begins playing the piano with his father. He graduated, with full marks from the conservatory “O.Respighi” of his hometown. Additionally he also achieved a “Master of Arts in Music Performance” at the Italian Swiss Conservatory of Lugano with M° Sandro D’onofrio.
Alessandro continued his studies by attending annual mastercourses with M° Roberto Prosseda, Alessandra Ammara, Maurizio Baglini, Carlo Guaitoli, Alessandra Brustia. He also took part in masterclasses with M° Nora Doallo, Marco Marzocchi, Bruno Canino, Carlo Grante.
Throughout his career, Alessandro has performed at major festivals and venues among which : “Teatro Cafaro” and “Teatro D’Annunzio” in Latina as a soloist with Orchestra and in different variants of chamber music, “Palazzo Caetani” for the Fondi Music Festival with Orchestra conduct by M° Gabriele Pezone (2014) and M° Grigor Palikarov(2017), Museo “Venanzo Crocetti ” in Rome, “Hotel Royal Continental” in Naples, “Castello Caetani” in Sermoneta (LT) for the “International Festival Pontino”, Sala “Orazio Di Pietro” for Latina Jazz Club “Luciano Marinelli”, “Fazioli Pianoforti” in Milano Malpensa, “Chamber music Festival” in Lugano, University of “Roma Tre” .
In 2016, he played and recorded for the Bulgarian National Radio of Plovdiv at the “Trimontiada” Festival .
In 2018, Alessandro participated at the book’s presentation ’“Gli Imperdonabili”, written by Marcello Veneziani , by performing pieces of Chopin.
Since 2018 he has continued to broaden his studies under the guidance of M° Alessandro Deljavan . During this same period, he has also attended the course “Principles of Biomechanics and Application in Video Analysis to Movement” integrating it with studies in psychology and neuroscience with the purpose of an artistic research project, currently under development.
In 2020 he earned a master degree in “Theory and Practice of Ensemble Music Training” at the University of “Roma Tre”.
During his piano activities, Alessandro is involved in composition and improvisation developing recital programs ranging from various genres and styles. A recording project of original musical works is planned for the end of 2021.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: (b Salzburg, 27 Jan 1756; d Vienna, 5 Dec 1791). Austrian composer, son of Leopold Mozart. His style essentially represents a synthesis of many different elements, which coalesced in his Viennese years, from 1781 on, into an idiom now regarded as a peak of Viennese Classicism. The mature music, distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal elegance and its richness of harmony and texture, is deeply coloured by Italian opera though also rooted in Austrian and south German instrumental traditions. Unlike Haydn, his senior by 24 years, and Beethoven, his junior by 15, he excelled in every medium current in his time. He may thus be regarded as the most universal composer in the history of Western music.