Carmen Variations (Horowitz)
Variations on a Theme from Carmen are a set of variations
Variation (music)
In music, variation is a formal technique where material is repeated in an altered form. The changes may involve harmony, melody, counterpoint, rhythm, timbre, orchestration or any combination of these.-Variation form:...

 composed and performed by the Russian-American
Russian American
Russian Americans are primarily Americans who traces their ancestry to Russia. The definition can be applied to recent Russian immigrants to the United States, as well as to settlers of 19th century Russian settlements in northwestern America which includes today's California, Alaska and...

 pianist Vladimir Horowitz
Vladimir Horowitz
Vladimir Samoylovich Horowitz    was a Russian-American classical virtuoso pianist and minor composer. His technique and use of tone color and the excitement of his playing were legendary. He is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.-Life and early...

. They are based on the Gypsy Dance from Georges Bizet
Georges Bizet
Georges Bizet formally Alexandre César Léopold Bizet, was a French composer, mainly of operas. In a career cut short by his early death, he achieved few successes before his final work, Carmen, became one of the most popular and frequently performed works in the entire opera repertory.During a...

's opera
Opera is an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes includes dance...

Carmen is a French opéra comique by Georges Bizet. The libretto is by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on the novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée, first published in 1845, itself possibly influenced by the narrative poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin...



Of Horowitz's many transcriptions, the Carmen Variations were the only one to remain in his repertoire throughout his career. He played them from his earliest concerts in the 1920s, where he often wowed his audience with the "show stopping" encore
Encore (concert)
An encore is an additional performance added to the end of a concert, from the French "encore", which means "again", "some more"; multiple encores are not uncommon. Encores originated spontaneously, when audiences would continue to applaud and demand additional performance from the artist after the...

, through to his golden jubilee season in 1978, over fifty years later.

The main theme of the piece originates from the energetic Gypsy Dance from Act II of Bizet's opera Carmen ("Les tringles des sistres tintaient"), a theme that has been used by many for various other variations and transcriptions, including Moszkowski
Moritz Moszkowski
Moritz Moszkowski was a German Jewish composer, pianist, and teacher of Polish descent. Ignacy Paderewski said, "After Chopin, Moszkowski best understands how to write for the piano"...

's Chanson Bohème de l'Opéra Carmen.

Although Horowitz had no desire to see the piece published, he performed it in many concerts and showed it to a couple of friends and acquaintances. He even made a piano roll of the piece, but always kept the score to himself.

Horowitz's audiences loved the Carmen Variations and he was often compelled to perform them everywhere. Eventually Horowitz became tired of this as his audiences forgot the rest of the programme after the encore.


The piece begins with the basic unchanged theme in a rapid tempo, however the mood soon turns playful but with an increasing technical demand on the pianist. Notes cascade from the upper register and rhythms become even wilder.

In the latter section, a variant of the theme is played in the lower register, providing a calmer and less hectic atmosphere, but this doesn’t last.

After an intricate, chromatic scale
Chromatic scale
The chromatic scale is a musical scale with twelve pitches, each a semitone apart. On a modern piano or other equal-tempered instrument, all the half steps are the same size...

 passage, taking the form of a short cadenza
In music, a cadenza is, generically, an improvised or written-out ornamental passage played or sung by a soloist or soloists, usually in a "free" rhythmic style, and often allowing for virtuosic display....

, the music suddenly explodes into mayhem and Horowitz blows the main theme through the roof, showing huge virtuosity
A virtuoso is an individual who possesses outstanding technical ability in the fine arts, at singing or playing a musical instrument. The plural form is either virtuosi or the Anglicisation, virtuosos, and the feminine form sometimes used is virtuosa...

, power and a brilliant technique at the keyboard.

The coda of the piece concludes with the usual Horowitz-Style interlocking octave
In music, an octave is the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency. The octave relationship is a natural phenomenon that has been referred to as the "basic miracle of music", the use of which is "common in most musical systems"...

s, taking the form of an ascending chromatic scale and a few final mighty chords, all versions of the variations contain this in some form or another.

In these variations Horowitz displays the heights of his powers and technique.


Like the man, the piece changed over time. It is almost strictly a virtuoso showpiece, but as the years progressed, the variations became more sophisticated. Here are the five main versions of the piece:


Horowitz's first recordings were on a piano roll
Piano roll
A piano roll is a music storage medium used to operate a player piano, piano player or reproducing piano. A piano roll is a continuous roll of paper with perforations punched into it. The peforations represent note control data...

 for Welte and Sons
M. Welte & Sons, Freiburg and New York was a manufacturer of orchestrions, organs and reproducing pianos, established in Vöhrenbach by Michael Welte in 1832.-Overview:...

 in January 1927 and just one year later in 1928 for Duo-Art. Also in 1928 Horowitz made his first disc recording of the piece for RCA, taking three attempts to get a recording he was happy with. In these early performances we hear the youthful Horowitz's hasty fingers.


There is a live recording from 1942 and a similar version recorded in the studio in 1947. There were not too many changes from the 1928 version.


In the middle of his long retirement from the concert stage from 1953 until 1965, Horowitz considered a return in 1957 and worked on a new version of his variations. In this version it was not just a flashy encore, but a full length concert piece. We see some truly fascinating developments of the piece, the variations are more varied and the coda is almost completely new. Unfortunately he did not return to the stage to perform it and the recording was not released until after his death.


In 1965, Horowitz ended his retirement and began performing again. He soon brought back his Carmen Variations and the public heard it for the first time in nearly 20 years. Though this version contained some of the changes made in 1957, it had been restored to its usual encore form with little change from the 1947 version. Horowitz performed the piece at his famous television concert in 1968 on CBS, with some minor changes from the 1967 version, mostly alterations to the coda.

In 2009 a recording from 1967 was released with slight differences to the coda.


The last recording of the Carmen Variations occurred in February 1978 at Horowitz's televised White House
White House
The White House is the official residence and principal workplace of the president of the United States. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., the house was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, and built between 1792 and 1800 of white-painted Aquia sandstone in the Neoclassical...

 concert, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his American debut. This version is quite similar to that of 1968 except for a few small alterations here and there and the addition of several items from the 1957 version including some of the coda.

To keep us informed that he hadn't forgotten it, in 1985 during the filming of The Last Romantic
The Last Romantic
The Last Romantic is a documentary filmed within the home of concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz. The film contains mainly performances of classical works, but also provides an intimate look into Horowitz's private life.-Description:...

, Horowitz let a few choice bars slip out.

Horowitz's recordings

Recording Date Duration Record Label Album
1926/2009 03:58 Tacet The Welte Mignon Mystery Vol. XI
1942 03:37 APR
- In the context of organizations :*Agrarian Party of Russia, a left-wing political party in Russia*Alabama Public Radio*American Public Radio, now Public Radio International*Asia-Pacific Scout Region...

Piano e forte, April 2000: APR Catalogue & Details of Special CD
1947 03:37 RCA Victor Legendary RCA Recordings / Vladimir Horowitz: The Indispensable
1957 06:55 RCA Red Seal RCA Red Seal Century: Soloists and Conductors
1968 03:58 Sony Masterworks The Legendary 1968 TV Concert

Recordings by other pianists

Pianist Duration Record Label Recording Date Album
Arcadi Volodos
Arcadi Volodos
Arcadi Volodos is a Russian pianist. His first name is sometimes transliterated Arcady or Arkady. Volodos is renowned both for his technical mastery of the instrument's virtuosic repertoire and for his notoriously technically difficult arrangements of...

03:39 Sony Classical 1996 Transcriptions
Ladislav Fanzowitz 04:02 Diskant 2005 Ladislav Fanzowitz plays Horowitz, Godowsky, Balakirev & Liszt
Valery Kuleshov 04:19 BIS Records
BIS Records
BIS Records is a record label founded in 1973 by Robert von Bahr. It is located in Åkersberga, Sweden.BIS focuses on classical music, both contemporary and early, especially works that are not already well represented by existing recordings....

2000 Hommage à Horowitz
Denis Matsuev
Denis Matsuev
Denis Leonidovich Matsuev is a Russian pianist, one of the most popular classical music performers of his generation, the winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1998 in Moscow , laureate of esteemed Shostakovich Prize in Music and State Prize of Russian Federation in Literature and...

03:26 RCA Red Seal 2003 Tribute to Horowitz

External links

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