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Henryk Wieniawski
Carnaval Russe Op. 11

Carnaval russe
Op. 11 is one of the most spectacular compositions by Henryk Wieniawski. Imbued with folk atmosphere and full of brilliant virtuosity, it blends in the 19th-century tradition of violin carnivals started by Niccolò Paganini in the Carnival of Venice Op. 10, which later inspired other violinist-composers, among them Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst or Charles Dancla.

Wieniawski knew Paganini’s piecevery well, for he frequently played it at his concerts. A permanent entry of Wieniawski’s repertoire, the composition was successfully performed in several countries, and enjoyed particular popularity with American audiences. Having mastered all technical difficulties, Wieniawski excellently grasped the humorous tone of the variations, which he rendered with unusual lightness and easiness. In the words of a “New York Herald” reviewer’s, Paganini’s eccentric and fantastic transcription of the “Carnival of Venice” has been played frequently here before by violinists whose names rank high on the roll of fame, but we will venture to say that Wieniawski is the only artist living, save, perhaps, Joachim, who can thoroughly master and make effective its eccentric treatment. Mr Wieniawski played it with such a brio and clear, crisp finish that even the orchestra rose to a man and applauded1.

Thus, when Wieniawski composed his Carnaval russe, he had Paganini’s Carnival of Venice deep in his memory and “under his fingers”. Although the composition was a tribute to the Italian master, it was far from mere imitation. Wieniawski introduced certain technical devices favoured by Paganini (e.g. left hand pizzicato, harmonics, light bow), at the same time adapting them to suit his own needs. The composer set the idea of carnival merriment in Russian context, employed virtuoso devices for illustrative and expressive purposes, and flavoured the whole with inherent sense of humour. The composition is even subtitled “Humorous Variations”.

Construction of the piece is based on a simple formula of a theme with variations, which was gladly employed by virtuosi, for the variation form enabled the performer to show his best qualities, both in terms of technical competence, and improvisational skills. It was also used to enter into a dialogue with the listener, who closely followed subsequent transformations of the theme (with which, in most cases, he was already familiar). Said Charles de Bériot: Music is an art of merging sounds in a way that is pleasing to the ear. The basic condition of being pleasing is respecting two principles that stem from the human nature – the sense of orderliness and unrestrained fantasy. And thus, on the one hand, there is the “canvas”, on the other – the “ornamentation” that fills the outline. The canvas can be compared to the wheel: perfect, homogenous, immovable, and the ornamentation to the crown of the flower that it supports. The canvas helps to maintain the order of construction, yet it is only an appropriate and tasteful arrangement of the flowers that makes the whole acquire more grace2.

Wieniawski fully respects the principles of “being pleasing” in music. He maintains stern formal order, and, at the same time, follows his most extravagant ideas. The theme is the canvas – simple, melodious, symmetrically constructed, as well as a simplified version of the harmonic base – TD(D). Phrasal construction and harmonic pattern remain unaltered throughout the cycle, it is only the length of certain variations that changes (variations VI, VIII and XII are shortened; variation VII - lengthened). On the melodic plane, however, the composer lets his imagination run free.

The series of twelve variations constitutes a kaleidoscope of melodic formulas and technical devices, which form a colourful tale permeated with Russian flavour. It is not short of surprising changes and sudden turns of the plot. The variations are sharply contrasted with one another, and yet they remain internally uniform (each is based on a single technical idea). Thus, they form a series of episodes of varied tonal and expressive quality. The whole begins with a short piano prelude, and ends with a majestic finale.

It is the soloist who plays the dominant role here; the piano is confined to discreet accompaniment only. The violin part is filled with dazzling virtuosity, which gives one an opportunity to show his technical skill, and, at the same time, evokes the mood of carnival amusement. Certain technical means are also employed for illustrative purposes, to imitate the sound of folk instruments (the tremolando in variation VIII sounds like the balalaika; the harmonics in variation IX imitate the sound of the pipe) or to bring other associations. Rapid jumps to outermost registers and quick changes of bow's position in variations III and XII bring to mind acrobats’ displays, while the melody “gliding” on the long trill in variation XI to a degree resembles playing the saw, which used to be an attraction at fair shows. The composer also employs other devices: the left-hand pizzicato (var. V), sautillé and martelé bowing (var. IV), chromatic scales (var. IX), extended scale and harmonic-figure passages (var. I). And all this is filled with humour and streaked with dance-like rhythm.

Although variation transformations make the theme permanently change its nature, it does remain recognizable, for its phrase structure, characteristic motifs and outline of the melodic line are preserved. Only in two places does the melodic contour slightly fade away (variations VI and VIII), yet reappearance of the original version of the theme re-establishes it in the memory (variation VII: Tempo del Tema). Furthermore, it is the piano that sometimes delivers the theme in chords and thus enhances its presence in the whole cycle.

What Wieniawski requires from the performer is a high degree of technical proficiency combined with self-confidence and courage. Accumulation of virtuoso devices, technical difficulties, and fast tempo demand that he should be very vigilant and ready to take risk3. The composer suggests, however, that virtuosity be treated lightly and unpretentiously; above all, as a pretext for festivity. As he wrote in a note to the publisher, these variations should be “performed with panache”. Thus, he approached them with ease, nay a certain nonchalance. One can assume that they sounded slightly different at different occasions. After all, Wieniawski was a master of improvisation who – in line with the 19th-century performing tradition – frequently made use of it in his concerts.

One of the most characteristic features of the musical idiom of the 19th-century virtuoso, the ludic element, finds its exemplification in the Carnaval russe. The spirit of game and entertainment pervades Wieniawski’s art: display of skill, spontaneity, element of surprise and risk, rivalry. His compositions are also marked by a certain tendency to cross boundaries, to freely balance between the lofty and the commonplace, between the solemn and the comic. Such attitude is best exemplified by violin carnivals, which lend voice to the “Carnivalesque”, a phenomenon described by Mikhail Bakhtin with reference to literature, but also present in other artistic and cultural domains4.

Wieniawski was keen to have the Carnaval russe printed. The publishing process was very smooth and fast. The “Author’s Note” appended to the score states that in November 1853 the composer deposited the manuscript with Kistner’s publishing house in Leipzig. Wieniawski apologises in it for “frivolousness as to the fingering and bowing,” putting the blame on the “humorous” character of the variations5. Kistner, however, treated his composition very seriously, and the musical score was prepared very quickly: information about the upcoming edition was published in “Signale für die Musikalische Welt” as quickly as in January 1854, and in March the newspaper informed that the work had already been on sale6. In all probability, the series of concerts which Wieniawski had in Germany at the time facilitated contacts with Kistner’s company, and thus made editorial work more effective.

First edition of the score for violin and piano published by Friedrich Kistner in Leipzig in 1854, plate no. 2004. In top right corner above the first stave: H. Wieniawski Op. 11; at the bottom of last page: Fine.Contained in the violin part, a collective title page for the violin and piano score (K) and separate violin part (K1) of the following wording: Le Carnaval Russe / Improvisations et Variations humoristiques / sur l’air National Russe populaire / „Po ulicy mostovoj” / pour le Violon / avec accompagnement de Piano / composées / et / très respectueusement dédiées / À SA MAJESTÉ / NICOLAS I r. [!] / EMPEREUR DE TOUTES LES RUSSIES / par / HENRI WIENIAWSKI. / Op. 11. [on the left] Pr. 25 Ngr. [on the right] / Propriété de l’Editeur. / Enregistré aux Archives de l’Union. / LEIPZIG, CHEZ FR. KISTNER. Below, plate no.: 2004.

Manuscript of the score for violin and piano; copy held at Archive – Library of Henryk Wieniawski Musical Society of Poznań; location of the original unknown. A composer-edited manuscript prepared for Kistner publishing house, it is relatively careful and legible, as well as contains few cuts and crossings-out. Consists of three unnumbered sheets and eleven pages of musical text (pp. 1-11); pagination occasionally unclear. Names of instruments: Violon solo, Piano to the left of the first stave. Each page contains musical text written in three staves, save for the final page, where it is written in one stave only. Content of the unnumbered manuscript sheets of nine staves varies. Sheet 1: made by the composer, title page of the composition of the following wording: Le Carnaval Russe / improvisations / et / variations humoristiques / sur l’air National Russe populaire / „Po ulicy mostovoj” / pour le Violon avec accompagnement de Piano / composées et très respectueusement dediées à / Sa Majesté Nicolas 1er / Empereur de toutes les Russies / par / Henri Wieniawski op. 11. Plate no. 2004 added in different handwriting in the middle of the bottom line.

Renata Suchowiejko

Translated by: Waldemar Łyś

1. ”New York Herald”, 29 September 1872, p. 6.
2. Charles de Bériot, Méthode de Violon, Paris 1857–1858, Schott, p. 176.
3. Wieniawski used to say that in the art of the violin, “one has to take risks” (Il faut risquer).
4. For a more extensive treatment of the carnival idiom in violin music, cf: Renata Suchowiejko Carnival as a “Topsy-Turvy World” through the Eyes of the Violin Virtuoso; a paper presented in Poznań at 2009 conference Henryk Wieniawski and the bravura tradition. Issues of style, techniques and performing practice. Poznań 2011.
5. Composer’s note to the publisher (original grammar and spelling), Sheet 2 of a manuscript:

Note de l’Auteur. / Je demande mille fois pardon d’avance au très cher Confrère qui / daignera me faire l’honneur de passer en revue ce morceau, pour / la négligeance que j’ai eu par rapport aux coups d’archets et doigtées, / mais je le prierai en revange de vouloir bien se souvenir que / se ne sont après tout que des variations humoristiques, /
[dont le seul mérite – si un mérite il y a – est d’être executé très fantastiquement]

I wish to apologize a thousand times to my Dear Colleague who is going to honour me with his perusal of the piece for my frivolousness as to the fingering and bowing. I humbly beg his recognition, however, that these are, above all, humorous variations, and their sole merit – if, that is, they possess any at all – is that they should be performed with panache.

Crossed out by the composer, the final line is difficult to read.
Below, on the right, signature and date: H[en]ri Wieniawski / Leipzig le 12 Novembre 1853.

6. Cf. “Signale für die Musikalische Welt”, 1854, no. 1, January, p. 4; 1854, no. 12, March, p. 102.