Variations: ‘a form based mostly totally on repetition … all through which a discrete theme is repeated various or many occasions with completely different modifications’. [Grove Music, ‘Variations’, Elaine Sisman]
Not, one could assume, a recipe for pleasure or enlightenment. As a scholar, I used to be compelled to compose a set of variations and produced music of such mind-blowing banality as to discourage any additional try on the sort. Nonetheless the beauty of variations, the place they succeed, lies in the best way by which by which composers are compelled to answer limitation. Bach’s Goldberg, Beethoven’s Diabelli or Elgar’s Enigma Variations are inspiring and insightful exactly due to composers are compelled to dig deeper than they could within the occasion that they’d free rein.
I uncover this contradiction intriguing and, on my newest album, current gadgets of variations from the 20 th and twenty first centuries that actually transcend the restrictions of the shape. These things spotlight the inherent paradox of variations, that, in repeating provides, we glean new notion as we view it from diversified views.
The opening work on the disc is the primary that I encountered: Szymanowski’s Variations on a Polish Theme, Op. 10. A paragon of late-Romantic virtuosic bravura, it takes what Szymanowski believed to be an precise people melody from the Tatra mountains and transforms it in a set of tableaux. In model and substance, it resembles Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. With every repetition, we swap to a mannequin new portray all through the gallery nonetheless the theme itself stays, in essence, unchanged.
Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, nonetheless, outcomes a complete transformation of the theme’s which suggests by near fanatical repetition over the course of a mere 9 minutes. When the theme returns all through the coda, it feels completely remoulded: the emotional impression is shattering. Equally, Copland’s Variations takes a gaggle of pitches which can be deployed in virtually serial sample to create a bit of monolithic stature. I’ve actually not heard music that makes use of so few notes to such monumental psychological have an effect on.
Whereas not the obvious take care of variation sort, ingenious use of repetition can generate humour and wit. Light metrical irregularity in Adams’ I Nonetheless Play retains the listener on their toes, whereas Lachenmann adopts an additional rumbustious methodology. Opening in resolutely stereotypical sample, with an Écossaise by Schubert, he shortly veers off correct proper right into a modernist model, verging on satire. The beautiful angles that repetition brings contribute in no small half to the humorous tone of this music.
Hindemith and Birtwistle present how variation sort can throw new delicate on emotional states and their growth over time. Each take grief as their place to begin. A weighty nostalgia in Hindemith’s Variations metamorphoses into tender comfort of bizarre magnificence whereas Birtwistle’s elegy takes us from numbed sorrow, by rage, to acceptance. In each circumstances, the evolution of the theme mirrors our non-public emotional transformation.
Whereas there are fairly a number of gadgets of variations that maintain safely all by the prescribed confines, it has been invigorating to seek out how composers can draw back its limitations and explode the shape from inside. The requires positioned on a performer, as we reply to split-second shifts in tone and feeling, are intense. Whereas immensely troublesome, this programme is among the many many most exhilarating and life-affirming that I’ve given.
Clare Hammond’s new recording of twentieth and twenty-first-century variations for piano is out on March 5 on the BIS label