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A Basic Necessity

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Melodic variation happens all the time; it’s one of the basic necessities in music. But variation in the sense of “theme and variations” is more particular. “Variations,” plural, began with the diferencias of the 16th-century Spanish lutenists, and grew from there to be a mainstay form of Baroque and Classical composers, fading out (with many wonderful exceptions) after Beethoven. When we hear the term “theme and variations” today we mostly are aware of variations in discrete sections, individual short pieces that have distinct starts and stops, beginnings and endings, but that come in groups. There are also so-called “continuous variations” — passacaglias and chaconnes, that imply a “ground bass” (Monteverdi: Zefiro torna) even if the repeated theme isn’t always in the bass (Bach: Passacaglia for organ in C minor). And then there are “symphonic variations” — Franck and Dvořák gave us examples with that title — in which the variation structure isn’t periodic, and the theme or themes may appear and disappear; in such cases the normal ideas of variation forms are blended with principles of thematic development. (Compare also the unique example of variation form in the first movement of Goldmark’s “Rustic Wedding” Symphony — may it become as well known again as it was a century ago — and the theme appears cyclically transformed in later movements.)

The Harvard Dictionary of Music, fourth edition, has a beautifully written article about “variation” by my Columbia University colleague Elaine Sisman, certainly the best description and definition of the term I’ve seen. There’s an elegant classification of variation types. One of the most familiar is the Theme and Variations in which the melody is varied, especially by division and ornamentation: Mozart “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman,” K. 265 (“Twinkle, twinkle, little star”) and Sonatas, K. 284 and 331; Chopin op. 2, Beethoven Symphony no. 5 second movement. Hardly less familiar is the type in which the Theme remains relatively constant and the accompaniment is varied from variation to variation: Haydn “Emperor” Quartet and Symphony no. 94 (“Surprise”), Bizet l’Arlésienne Suite no. 1, Schubert “Trout” Quintet, Beethoven “Appassionata” Sonata op. 57. These types remained popular because a listening public could easily recognize and keep track of the subject matter, so to speak, and often a set of variations could include both types. Then there is the constant-harmony variation technique, which Beethoven liked: Piano Sonatas op. 26, 109, and 111; Variations on a theme of Diabelli, op. 120 (33 of them! But the ditzy Diabelli waltz was ideally suited); Schubert, “Wanderer” Fantasy, op. 15 D 760, second movement. The idea of a constant bass line, with some differences in harmonic choices, is the basis of Bach’s Aria with 30 Variations, the so-called “Goldberg” Variations. Handel’s Chaconne with 62 variations uses an 8-bar pattern. (Did he really need 62 of them? The question must always be asked; it’s a matter of form.)

Beethoven almost from the start sought to vary the variation-form conventions: different tempi and meters among the variations are common, although one sees some of this already in Haydn and Mozart. More particularly, Beethoven saw the Theme as a melody susceptible to disassembly, recombination, and motivic development, yielding new melodies with more individuality than mere decoration. His early years, through 1799, contain more frequent variations on popular tunes: 24 Variations on “Venni amore” by Righini, WoO 65; 6 Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento” by Paisiello, WoO 70; 10 Variations on “La stessa, la stessissima” by Salieri, WoO 73; there are a dozen such sets, all in the major mode, with at least one Minore, and usually with an expanded concluding variation, like the finale at a fireworks display. But in his “heroic” period Beethoven began to amplify the variation form even more. The Six Variations, op. 34, on an original theme, begin in F major but change key with each succeeding variation: D major, B-flat major, G major, E-flat major (“Tempo di Menuetto”), C minor (“Marcia”), and back to F major, with an extended Coda the reprises the original theme. Beethoven, juggling many different projects as always, was working on several other important pieces at the same time, including the Second Symphony, the Triple Concerto, and (particularly relevant to our discussion here) another set of variations, op. 35, the so-called “Eroica” Variations, on a theme that had four separate incarnations.

That famous “Eroica” theme traces back to 1801-02 as no. 7 of a set of Twelve Contradances, first published by T. Mollo and Artaria in 1802 as a set of orchestra parts only (clarinets, horns, strings; the winds ad lib.), and later identified in Kinsky’s catalogue as WoO 14. Beethoven recycled it into the Finale of his ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, op. 43, probably completed in 1801 because the piano score was announced in June of that year. Here is the Contradance as it originally appeared (short score, wind parts condensed):

The next incarnation was the Fifteen Variations and Fugue for piano, op. 35, as mentioned above. Composed 1802 and published the next year, the score began with Introduzione: col Basso del Tema. The introductory title is revealing: the bass melody supporting the Theme is dependently conceived but completely different. Even before the upper melody of the Contradance theme is even introduced, Beethoven gives us first the 16-bar bass (two halves, each repeated), then a two-part counterpoint, then three-part, then four-part: 64 bars of variations (four of them) on the bass alone. Only after we have heard some 128 bars of music do we hear the Contradance, which appears as something completely new. (But you know all this anyway from the Finale of the Eroica Symphony.) The 15 variations that then follow treat both melodies, separately and together; Variation 15 begins Largo and continues expressively for 40 bars before heralding the “Finale. Alla Fuga” with an Allegro con brio, eventually reprising the Contradance and winding up with a whirlwind finish, ending in bar 205.

Thank God that Beethoven couldn’t get these themes out of his head. When it came to the Finale of his most drastically original symphony, he was able to use the Contradance idea, with its bass

melody, as an empyrean springboard for adventure. The Finale is, if you like, an initial set of classical variations, on two themes that combine with each other, and that are then exploded over a wildly developing countryside in time, the variations here and there and gone and back again, in a manner that stretches every boundary of classical experience. Think of the movement this way (it is so much fun to follow this in full score!):

Introduction, Allegro molto, E-flat major, mm. 1-11, V\iii — iii — V

Theme I, bass line: single notes, 12-43
                   Variation 1, 44-59 two 8-bar phrases, each repeated
                   Variation 2, 60-75 two 8-bar phrases, each repeated

Theme II, Contradance: 76-107, Variation 3 (incorporating Theme I as bass),
                    two 8-bar phrases, each repeated with different orchestration

Free Development, at first chiefly of Theme I
                 Transition, E flat to c, 107-116

Fugato, mm. 117-171
                 c, 117-140 (compare 44-59)
                 f, 140-156
                 A flat, 156-168, roaming, 168-175, roaming (augmented 6th)

Contradance (Variation 4)
                 b to D, 175-199

Theme I, D (Variation 5), 199-210
               g (Variation 6), 211- 257
               extended cadence, 240-257, still in g

Contradance with Theme I (bass), 258-276
                 C — c — E flat

Fugato resumed, Theme I inverted, 277-348
                 extended cadence, 315-348 (V: 328), return to E♭

Theme II, variations resumed (Poco andante), Contredanse without bass
                Variation 7, 349-364
                Variation 8, 365-372
                Variation 9, 373-380
                Variation 10, 381-395

Coda, Part I, 396-430
                 E flat — A flat — e flat — C flat — f sharp — D — g
                         (long pedal: G minor, 420-430)

Coda, Part II, like Introduction but Presto, 431-473
                V\iii — iii — V, 431-435
                Final repetitive emphasis, E-flat major, V-I, 436-473

These are symphonic variations in every sense, even though Beethoven doesn’t call them that. But they are unique in musical experience, as well — and definitely heroic, fully as dangerously as the famous 20-minute-long first movement, and fully as summarizing. As Paul Henry Lang wrote, in no other work did Beethoven “take such a fling at the universe.”

Musicologist and composer Mark DeVoto is an expert in early 20th-century music. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton University (Ph.D., 1967), he is professor emeritus of music at Tufts University. He wrote the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston, and in 1997 edited the Altenberg Lieder, op. 4, for the new edition Alban Berg’s complete works. In 2004 he published Debussy and the Veil of Tonality: Essays on his Music, and in 2011 Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony, both with Pendragon Press.

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