May 5th, 2010 by Fryderyk
When Vincenzo Bellini, a great composer of bel canto opera and one of Chopin’s musical idols died in 1835, a group of pianist-composers in Bellini’s circle chose to honor him by writing a set of six variations on a march from the last of his operas, “Il Puritani.”
The six friends were coaxed into this project by Princess Cristina Trivulzio Belgiojoso, and led by Franz Liszt, who contributed a substantial part of this nearly twenty minute long collection. The Princess, who adored Bellini, is pictured here and is separately a subject of extraordinary interest as a Parisian-exiled Italian heiress, a music loving society celeb, feminist, author, social activist and political revolutionary, teacher and pioneer.
The Hexameron was not a new musical instrument come to market in the 1830’s. Though of biblical genesis, the title for this homage to Bellini was named Hexameron rather for the six separate components of this collaborative work. There had been a longstanding legend that at one time all the pianists were gathered in the salon of the enterprising Princess, to perform the variations on six pianos; but as an acclaimed exponent of this difficult work, pianist Raymond Lewenthal reflected in his comments on Hexameron, it would have been wonderful if that had occurred, but there’s not an iota of confirmation.
Other than Liszt, composers of Hexameron were Sigismund Thalberg, Johann Peter Pixis, Henri Herz, Carl Czerny and finally Fryderyk Chopin. About fifteen years earlier, a similar type of multi-composer project bore a set of fifty variations written by fifty composers on a theme of Diabelli. This theme also inspired Beethoven, who independently created a magnificent set of thirty-three variations, Op. 120 (Diabelli Variations), which became one of his crowning acheivements.
In Hexameron we hear mostly virtuosic, bravura variations. Perhaps predictably Chopin’s contribution is of a different nature, as it offers the listener a rare moment of reflection. In Chopin’s hand, Bellini’s theme is intoned as largo (slow) and his dynamics are sotto-voce (soft), accompanied by nocturne-like left hand playing and rising and falling two-note chords. The only change of mood takes place in the middle of the variation, when more dramatic, sharper rhythms and fuller dynamics break the climate of meditation.