Nuts & Bolts: Variations

Simply write or steal a tune and then get your money’s worth by writing a set of variations on it. Bach, Rachmaninov, Lloyd Webber – they have all done it. But how exactly? Erik Levi explains.

The possibilities of variations on a theme are limitless. Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 inspired solo piano variations by Brahms, Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, a work by Lutoslawski, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations album. Mozart and Dohnányi wrote variations on nursery rhymes, while Beethoven and Ives worked on God Save the King. Ronald Stevenson wrote a mammoth 80-minute set of variations on Shostakovich’s musical motto, D—E flat—C—B, while the humble Chopsticks was the basis of a set by a group of Russian composers. And in d’Indy’s Istar and Britten’s Nocturnal for Guitar, the variations come before the theme.

For many composers, variations have been synonymous with virtuosity. At its most primitive, variation was used as the most effective vehicle for demonstrating the technical prowess of a specific instrumentalist. Not surprisingly, the nineteenth century abounds in examples of empty variations on popular operatic melodies whose musical merit would not trouble the seismograph.

But virtuosity in itself doesn’t have to be seen as the sole province of the instrumentalist or singer. A virtuosic composer can create something of lasting value out of the most basic material – a challenge that attracted Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to the form. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s 33 Diabelli Variations, and Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel are just three prime illustrations of this compositional virtuosity. The key to their greatness is each composer’s ability to effect great diversity of character, without sacrificing a sense of cohesion and a perceptive connection with the original idea.

The Goldberg, Diabelli and Harold Variations are the zenith of a tradition of the solo keyboard variation that extends way back to the Tudor period of William Byrd and the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. But inevitably, variation form percolated into many other genres, so that by the end of the eighteenth century you could encounter movements bearing the title of ‘variation’ in symphonies (the slow movement of Haydn’s Surprise), chamber music (the finale of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet) and concertos – the finales of Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 24.

During the romantic era, the technique was extended and refined. Inspired by Beethoven and Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, Liszt evolved the principle of thematic transformation which formed the basis for his Symphonic Poems and the great B minor Sonata. Almost concurrently, the concept of variation was dragged away from the intimate confines of the drawing room into the very public arena of the newly-built concert halls. Nineteenth-century repertoire was much enriched by the composition of extended sets of variations for symphony orchestra (Brahms’s Haydn Variations, Dvorak’s Symphonic Variations, Elgar’s Enigma Variations).

In our century, composers seem to have shown considerable loyalty towards variation form, while rejecting other traditional means of expression. You find substantial sets of variations covering all musical styles from atonality (Schoenberg’s Orchestral Variations) to crossover (Lloyd Webber). Variation form was also harnessed effectively in the opera house (Berg’s Wozzeck). but perhaps the most dazzling celebration of the creative potential of this technique comes in Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. While Bartók refuses to acknowledge the fact, the alert listener will notice that the finale amounts to a comprehensive variation and transformation of all the thematic material presented in the opening movement. It’s a tour de force of compositional virtuosity which is the hallmark of the greatest variations of all time.

Tools of the trade
Chaconne
Originally a Spanish dance which came to be known as a set of variations over an unchanging bass line (a ground bass). The form was particularly popular during the Baroque era, its finest reincarnations being Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas and the unaccompanied solo violin Chaconne in D minor by J S Bach.

Passacaglia
Another Spanish or Italian dance which became an instrument composition in variation form based on a sequence of notes or chords that are heard throughout, though not exclusively in the bass line, as in the Chaconne. Again the form was very popular in the Baroque era, though one of the finest examples of all comes in the finale to Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.

Variation finales
Quite often a composer will cap a set of variations with an extended movement that further elaborates material from the original theme. This finale can sometimes take the form of a fugue – Brahms’s Haydn Variations and Max Reger’s sets of Variations on themes by Bach, Mozart, Hiller, Beethoven and Telemann.

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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