Episode 102: Chopin's Hexameron

Variation No. 6 in E from Hexameron

Vincenzo BelliniOf all the composers in Paris, Fryderyk Chopin admired one above all: Vincenzo Bellini, renowned for the beautiful flowing bel canto style of operatic writing. And upon Bellini’s untimely death in 1835, Chopin and five fellow composers honored their lost colleague with one of the true musical oddities of the 19th century.

Think of it a Parisian-salon version of We Are the World. Only instead of Bruce Springsteen trading vocals with Dionne Warwick and Bob Dylan, the Hexameron featured contributions from six great piano virtuosos, including master showman Franz Liszt, the dazzling Sigismund Thalberg, the dextrous Carl Czerny…and Fryderyk Chopin.

The word "Hexameron" itself refers to the Biblical six days of creation. It took a little longer for Liszt to round up his fellow pianists for what ultimately became a twenty-minute work. In the style of the day, it begins with a big bombastic opening, followed by a theme, six variations, and a rousing finale, all based on the March from Bellini’s last opera, I Puritani.

Chopin’s contribution, the sixth and final variation in the set, is a nocturne of calm in a swirling sea of bravura virtuosity.

Not unlike We Are the World, the Hexameron was commissioned for a concert to benefit the poor, two years after Bellini’s death. Legend has it that all six composers playing six different pianos were present for the performance on March 31st, 1837. Only they weren’t: this Hexameron was only half-finished! Today, you might hear Variation VI pulled out of the curio cabinet of Chopinists. But the full Hexameron is better known for its historical inspiration than for its musical execution. - Joe Brant & Benjamin K. Roe

Radio Chopin Episode 102: Chopin's Hexameron

Variation No. 6 in E from Hexameron