Classical Chat: Variations are the spice of life

The theme and variations has proven itself to be one of the most durable and varied ways of structuring a piece of classical music.

Friday, 22nd December 2017, 12:34 pm
Updated Friday, 22nd December 2017, 1:40 pm
A symphony orchestra performing

As the name suggests, these are works which contain the statement of an initial theme and then as many variations on it as the composer’s imagination can come up with.

These can be dazzling explorations of musical ability, with a huge range of moods and ideas being conjured up while still retaining the first tune on which everything is based.

The roots of the theme and variations lie in medieval choral writing, though in the earlier days composers would more often write music based on an endlessly repeating line, usually in the bass parts.

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Gradually melodic or rhythmic motifs became the basis of the music, although works which revolve around unchanging baselines, such as the passacaglia, are still used today as well.

One of the appealing things about a theme and variations is that anything can be built on it, from an intimate work for a soloist to a massive display piece for a giant orchestra.

From the 1400s and 1500s to the modern era, generations of musicians have found something new to say using this idea.

Here are five great examples:

Bach’s Goldberg Variations: Originally written for harpsichord but now often played on piano, they were composed for a nobleman with insomnia. There’s no fear of falling asleep while it is on though; it perfectly shows the structural webs Bach composed and contains writing of tremendous beauty and depth.

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations: The composer’s last work for piano crams a dazzling array of ideas into the 33 variations on the original theme, ending it all with a finale of unexpected simplicity.

Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini: A showpiece for piano and orchestra, this is all built on an instantly recognisable tune Andrew Lloyd-Webber was also captivated by. There are a few elements of Hollywood pizazz in this as well as a glorious, swooningly romantic slow section to savour.

Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto: This is a huge set of variations ingeniously disguised inside a three-movvement concerto, in deference to the wishes of the soloist who asked Bartok to write it. It’s a strikingly varied piece in mood reflecting the composer’s fears about fascism in Europe in the 1930s.

Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra: It’s time to take the plunge into the world of 12-tone music, where conventional ways of organising music are replaced with a tone row of all the notes which must be used. This has a labyrinthine depth to it and the sheer imagination of Schoenberg’s sounds is fascinating.