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…


10 thoughts on “Carmen Variations

  1. 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.

    1. Michael, these “Variations” are actually a composition, and that makes everything different. In other words, Horowitz used a couple themes from the opera “Carmen”, but he used these themes very freely. Many composers do this, starting with a theme by another composer, usually an earlier one.

      Here is a Wiki article about the whole thing.

      The important matter is that he chose never to write it down. So when we hear someone else play something close to any of his versions that means that someone tried to figure out the whole whole thing by ear.

      When you write something yourself it means that what you do has special importance because it’s yours. No matter how well someone else plays it, it’s a kind of copy.

  2. 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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