Sunday, February 19, 2017

Project 366 - Themes and Variations

To mark the fifth anniversary of ITYWLTMT, we are undertaking a long-term project that will introduce - and re-introduce - musical selections in the context of a larger thematic arc I am calling "A Journey of Musical Discovery". Read more here.


This month’s installment of Project 366 is another stand-alone theme with illustrations, this one dusting up a thematic arc from January 2014.

The Oldest Trick in the Book

In one of our earliest chapters, we talked about sonatas, and introduced the general concept of musical form – that is to say, the “method behind the madness” of organizing a piece of music. Forms can be very strict (the sonata form, or three-part form is a good example of that), and others can be less rigid, but form is after all form, and there has to be a set of “simple rules” that allow us to build a piece (or recognize how a piece is built). In his famous Omnibus television lecture on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Leonard Bernstein talked about form as “a mold of Jell-O”.

One example if a popular musical form is the “theme and variations”. In its simplest manifestation, a musical theme is “exposed” and is repeated in altered form or accompanied in a different manner through a set of variations “developed” from that theme. T & V structure generally begins with a theme (which is itself sometimes preceded by an introduction), typically between eight and thirty-two bars in length; each variation, particularly in music of the eighteenth century and earlier, will be of the same length and structure as the theme.

The basic principle of beginning with simple variations and moving on to more elaborate ones has always been present in the history of the variation form, since it provides a way of giving an overall shape to a variation set, rather than letting it just form an arbitrary sequence. In a way, this form may in part have derived from the practical inventiveness of musicians.

According to a fine article in Wikipedia, works in T & V form first emerge in the early sixteenth century. Keyboard works in variation form were written by a number of 16th-century English composers, including William Byrd, Hugh Aston and Giles Farnaby. Outstanding examples of early Baroque variations are the "ciaccone" of Claudio Monteverdi and Heinrich Schütz] Two famous variation sets from the Baroque era, both originally written for harpsichord, are George Frideric Handel's The Harmonious Blacksmith set, and Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations.

In the Classical era, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a great number of variations, such as the first movement of his Piano Sonata in A, K. 331, or the finale of his Clarinet Quintet. Joseph Haydn specialized in sets of double variations, in which two related themes, usually minor and major, are presented and then varied in alternation; outstanding examples are the slow movement of his Symphony No. 103, the Drumroll, and the Variations in F minor for piano, H XVII:6.

Musicians of the Classical era also could improvise variations; both Mozart and Beethoven made powerful impressions on their audiences when they improvised. Modern listeners can get a sense of what these improvised variations sounded like by listening to published works that evidently are written transcriptions of improvised performances, in particular Beethoven's Fantasia in G Minor, Op. 77, and Mozart's Variations on an Aria by Gluck, K. 455. Beethoven wrote many variation sets in his career. Some were independent sets, for instance the Diabelli Variations, and the Eroica Variations . Others form single movements or parts of movements in larger works, such as the variations in the final movement of the Third Symphony (Eroica).

We could continue the list through the Romantic (Chopin and Mendelssohn) and the Late Romantic (Johannes Brahms). Variation sets have also been composed by notable twentieth-century composers, including Sergei Rachmaninov (Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and his variations for solo piano on themes by Chopin and Corelli), Charles Ives (Variations on "America"), Arnold Schoenberg (Theme and Variations, Opp. 43a and 43b), and the list goes on…

A significant sub-set of the above consists of variations on a theme by another composer – Brahms’s variations on themes by Haydn and Paganini, Chopin, Liszt and many others based on operatic arias by Mozart and others, the list can go on for pages!

Your Listener Guides

Listener Guide #77 “TDMH June 1954”. Taken from the broadcast archives of the CBC, Glenn Gould performs the Goldberg Variations and other Bach favourites (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 161 - 20 June 2014)



Listener Guide #78 – “Tchaikovsjy Suites nos. 3 and 4”. From my vinyl collection, a pair of recordings of Tchaikovsky Orchestral; Suites, both with elaborate Theme and Variation movements (Vinyl’s Revenge NEW)

Listener Guide #79 – “Theme and Variations: Paganini Edition”. Rachmaninov, Brahms and Liszt use themes by Paganini in elaborate T & V works. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 137 - 3 Jan 2014)


Listener Guide #80 – “Variations on a Song”. “Twinkle Twinlkle Little Star”, “The Carnival of Venice” and :”I Got Rhythm” are example of songs that get the T & V treatment in this montage. (ITYWLTMT Podcast # 139 - 17 Jan 2014)




Listener Guide #81 – “Variations for Orchestra”. A set of works for orchestra that exploit the T & V form by Elgar and Britten among others (ITYWLTMT Podcast #131 - 31 Jan 2014)