1920: Carmen Variations

(June 14, 2019)

Where it came from…

For several centuries the greatest pianists on the planet have been famous for taking a theme by another composer then using that theme to freely improvise. Improvisations can be made up on the spot, very common in jazz, but also planned out very carefully for a final version that will remain unchanged. My personal bias is towards the things that are thought out carefully and written down because those ideas can be more complex and more sophisticated. Other musicians, however, prefer improv that is done on the spot.

George Bizet wrote one of the most famous and popular pieces of music ever written. It’s opera, and for the most part that’s not what I’m teaching, so at this time I won’t link to the opera itself. But several themes from Carmen, by far his most popular work, are known world-wide. Carmen is another of those incredibly famous pieces that has been ridiculously popular almost since it was written, but with a catch. Bizet died after the 33rd performance, and a bunch of nasty, incredibly stupid critics wrote scathing reviews. It was the usual story. The style of the music was ahead of its time, so it took awhile for audiences to catch up. If the critics had not been so incredibly stupid, it would have been popular even sooner.

Here is no group of people on planet earth whom I despise more than critics. They generally are 100% wrong about anything important.

Many years later, Horowitz composed these “Variations”, and it always brought audiences to their feet because of the speed, difficulty and inventiveness of the music. Quite obviously there are very few pianists on the planet who can play it well, and no one has come close to Horowitz. Just looking at the music gives me a headache because it’s so far over my ability.

Played by the Chairman of the Board…

There is another version, basically an incomplete copy, and for me it lacks the interest of the original. It does not have as much variation in touch, the dynamics are not as wide, and the articulation is not as sharp. But most of all, it’s a bit like reading a brilliant essay read by someone than then finding out that someone else wrote the words.

Yuja Wang, a copy…

6 thoughts on “1920: Carmen Variations

  1. I always love Yuja Wang’s performances, she’s such a talented pianist. Not sure why, but I kind of prefer her rendition, although it might just be the difference in audio quality. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this in an older cartoon, but I’m blanking on which one.

  2. The second one sounds like it implements the dynamics a little bit better. The first one sounds like (I don’t know if this is true) it keeps the intentions of the piece. Surprising considering it’s basically incomplete.

  3. Wowie. That Horowitz. I’m surprised the piano didn’t catch fire. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him raise his hands that high before.

    Something that fascinates me about him is it looks like he’s yanking the keys out of the piano. That’s what you and I were talking about today.

    The copy also has the motion, but not the viciousness. With Horowitz you get the impression that piano is juuuust about to its limits..

    I need to find this on LP.

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