Variation form has been with us a long time. William Byrd wrote a marvellous set of variations on The Carman’s Whistle. The Renaissance composers prepared the ground for the form’s Baroque florescence. Variation in the classical and romantic periods lost some of its luster because of display pieces that took the basic principle of making the figurations go faster to a ridiculous extreme. But thanks to Brahms it enjoyed a rehabilitation, and Schoenberg and his school, following directly from Brahms’s example, have ensured its continuing vitality. Of the 80 or so published opuses by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, 17, according to my reckoning, are in variation form or contain a variation movement. That is an amazingly high proportion.
Why is the form important? Because it emphasizes a technique that is basic to all composition, namely, stating an idea and then doing something different with it. Whether a composer’s basic material consists of a folk tune or a twelve-tone matrix, this principle applies. Stanford says that all composition is theme and variation.
The two monumental sets that all composers refer to are Bach’s Goldbergs and Beethoven’s Diabellis. Incidentally, the second was written in rivalry with the first. Our modern ideas about originality and not trespassing on someone else’s creative terrain are ones that Beethoven (and probably Bach) would have found strange. I have a problem with the Goldberg Variations. The theme is a wonderful
creation. But I find the variations dry, especially when they are played, as they now usually are, as a complete sequence. (Bach may not have intended this.) The various contrapuntal ingenuities become predictable, and the inherent weakness of variation form –the stop-start, up ladders and down snakes aspect – is scarcely overcome. There you
are. Masterpieces sometimes bore us. Beethoven’s wonderful sense of drama enabled him to overcome these problems. In fact, a recent performance by Andras Schiff of the Diabellis confirmed my opinion that this work is perhaps the pinnacle of the entire piano repertoire. It is Shakespearian in its scope and inventiveness. And yet Tovey was right to regard the work as the apotheosis of classicism, for the template of Diabelli’s trite little theme is stuck to with astonishing rigour the whole way through. This applies even to Variation XX, a piece that surpasses all the subsequent harmonic innovation of the 19th C in its unearthly strangeness.
Brahms and variation form is a subject that would take a book to discuss. I will confine myself here to saying that I think the Handel Variations are perhaps the one 19th C work for piano that rival the Diabellis in their ambition and execution. Incidentally, this great work is a little anthology of historical keyboard styles. For example, you can hear Bach in Variation 16, Schumann in 18 and Scarlatti in 22. And Brahms invented the genre of free-standing orchestral variation in his St. Anthony set, a work which cleverly makes of its finale a variation set also, by reviving the chaconne principle.
Elgar’s Enigma Variations follow directly from this work, as do Webern’s Passacaglia op. 1(an astonishingly accomplished orchestral debut) and Schoenberg’s Variations op. 31. Webern has an interesting relationship to variation. In his twelve-tone period it is one of his favorite forms. See for example the Variations for Orchestra op 30 or the first movement of the String Quartet op. 28. I have taught this latter piece for years and I always ask students to explain in what sense we can hear it as a theme and variations. No one has ever come up with a satisfactory answer. Where there is no audible theme, how can one hear variations? Schoenberg understood this point, and his later sets of variations are always thematic. In this sense, the form imposes a conservative approach. But is not form the most conservative musical element in any case? The Op 31 Variations are the locus classicus of twelve-tone variation. Much as I admire this work, I have to express one reservation about it. I do not find the theme sufficiently memorable to sustain the variations which follow. Without Schoenberg’s amazing inventiveness of motivic interweaving and orchestration, the work would surely fall apart. And the old problem of periodicity – in plain language, stop-start – stubbornly persists. The later tonal sets like the Variations on a recitative for Organ op 40 and the Variations for Band op 43 are worth listening to as well.
It is surprising that the stop-start problem is not completely overcome even by Elliott Carter in his fine Variations for Orchestra of 1954. If any composer has the sense of overarching and all-encompassing expressive line, it is surely Carter; but this impressive work has the same fragmentary structure of many previous sets. Carter expands on the classical principle by varying several ideas continuously, not only the 75-note theme but the two so-called ritornellos, one of which gets faster while the other gets slower. These devices serve to give the work a kind of symphonic cohesiveness. It is an ingenious and inventive score, with a long Finale almost counterbalancing the rest of the work in clear homage to Schoenberg’s op. 31.
The genre of orchestral variations has not produced many works. But from Brahms through Elgar, Schoenberg, Reger, Webern and Carter, composers have given it their best. It is a fascinating musical journey to follow.
Kevin O’Connell’s seminar on variation form will take place at the Royal Irish Academy of Music from Monday 30th January to Wednesday 1st of February 2012.
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