The penultimate work in this series of blogposts is the volume known as the Paraphrases. It is a collection of pieces for three hands and five hands, in two editions, by Borodin, [left], Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Lyadov in the first edition, published in 1879, and added to those composers in the second edition, works by Shcherbachyov and Liszt, published in 1893.
Have you ever been driven to distraction by children hammering out ‘Chopsticks’ on the piano?! There’s a Russian version of it, Tati-Tati, in single notes rather than in clusters, which formed the inspiration for the Paraphrases. At 2016’s Summer School for Pianists, Karl Lutchmayer, Graham Fitch and I performed the Carillon by Rimsky-Korsakov from the Paraphrases as a five-handed piece. The story of the Paraphrases, partly told by Borodin himself, appears in this quote from ‘Borodin and Liszt’ by Alfred Habets.
‘About this time, Borodin collaborated with his friends, Rimsky-Korsakov, Liadoff and Cui, in a work, apparently humorous, but really of a serious nature, entitled “Paraphrases,” twenty-four variations, and fourteen little pieces for piano, on a favourite theme obligato, “dedicated to little pianists who can play the air with one finger of each hand. [So strictly speaking, the pieces use four and six hands, but you can use just one hand for the top part.]
This theme, consisting of four bars, must be played by the first performer on the upper octaves of the piano, while the second player performs the paraphrases, for which more than a mere tyro is needed.
For this lengthy work Borodin wrote three pieces, by no means the least interesting, entitled ” Polka,” ” Marche Funebre ” and ” Requiem “; this last, in which a liturgical chant is developed as a fugue upon the popular and persistent air, is especially striking.
In one of his last letters addressed to his friends, Monsieur and Madame G. Huberti, December 14th, 1886, Borodin relates the origin of this work : —
” I take the liberty of sending you, for your little girls, my — or rather our — ‘Paraphrases,’ twenty-four variations, and fourteen little pieces for piano on the favourite theme of the Coteletten Polka, which is so popular with the little ones in Russia. It is played with the first finger of each hand. The origin of this humorous work is very funny. One day Gania (one of my adopted daughters) asked me to play a duet with her. ‘ ”Well, but you do not know how to play, my child.”
” Yes, indeed, I can play this -”
I had to yield to the child’s request, and so I improvised the polka which you will find in the collection.
[Listen to track 11 on this CD for the Polka.]
The four keys, C major, G major, F minor and A minor, of the four parts of the polka, in which the unchanging theme of the Coteletten Polka makes a kind of canto fermo or counter-point, caused much laughter among my friends, afterwards joint-authors of the Paraphrases. They were amused. First one and then another wanted to try his hand at a piece in this style. The joke was well received by our friends. We amused ourselves by performing these things with people who could not play the piano. Finally, we were requested to publish this work. Rahter became the proprietor and publisher. This music fell into Liszt’s hands, who was delighted with it.
He wrote a charming letter about it to one of his friends in St Petersburg ; the letter was very flattering to the author of the ‘ Paraphrases.’ One day the friend of Liszt’s who had received this letter mentioned it in a musical article. The critics, our enemies, were infuriated, and said that Liszt could not have approved of such a work, that he never wrote the letter, that the whole thing was a falsehood, and finally that we composers had compromised ourselves by the publication of such a work.
When Liszt heard all this he laughed heartily. He wrote to us: — ‘If this work is considered compromising, let me compromise myself with you.’ It was then that he sent the scrap of music that serves as an introduction to my Polka, requesting Rahter to print it in the second edition of the ‘ Paraphrases ‘ already in the press. In view of Liszt’s great authority, Rahter thought well to engrave the facsimile of the leaflet sent by the great master. The reproduction of this leaflet was printed and added to the music of the first edition. Our enemies were silenced. Liszt was very fond of this humorous work, and it always amused him to play it with his pupils.
The page added by Liszt bore the title : — ” Variation for the second edition of the marvellous work of Borodin, Cesar Cui, Liadoff and Rimsky-Korsakoff, by their devoted Franz Liszt, Weimar, July 28th, 1880. To be placed between pages 9 and 10 of the early edition, after the finale of C. Cui, and as prelude to the polka by Borodin.”