Significant Variations for Orchestra.

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Significant Variations for Orchestra.

The creative spirit of a composer is demonstrated through the impossible task to exactly replicate what he/she has heard in his/her environment. However, what happens is that he/she reinvents what is heard ad infinitum.

In this vein, the variation form has become a driving force of the composer's creative impulse. Two main different forms of elaborating the original material have become the source of achieving even the most complex and lenghty variations: by ornamentation, amplificatioin or deviation of the melody or, based on the bass line, variations on the harmonic progression or rhythmic changes.

While the Variations for one instrument or chamber groups are more common and very well-established (e.g. Bach's Goldberg, Beethoven's Diabelli), the Variations for Orchestra are not that many, while rather few are quite well-known. However, they are more complex and intriguing (particularly as for the orchestration), quite individual, often lengthy enough and sometimes grandiose and even profound.

Some of them are very well-established complete works (e.g. Elgar's Enigma Variations), but quite a few appear in a movement of a Concerto (e.g. the last movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto no.17, in G, K.453) or in a Symphony (e.g. the last movement  of Beethoven's Third Symphony).

So, how many and which ones could be identified as the most significant Orchestral Variations, in any form (complete work, Symphony or Concerto's Movement)?

Parla

Great idea for a thread Parla

Great idea for a thread Parla. I’ve thought of opening it up myself a few times in the past (maybe not just orchestral), since there are many but they are not always part of the standard repertory. The last one I’ve discovered and I cherish is Franz Schmidt’s Variations on a theme by Beethoven, for piano left hand and orchestra, which uses Beethoven well known theme from his Spring violin sonata, third movement.

 

A subgenre is that of the Variations and Fugue, whose most famous orchestral exemple might or might not be Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Do you -or anyone else- know  the origin of it? I mean the origin of a set of variations ending with a fugue? I personally don’t, and I’ve wondered in the past. Maybe Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue?

 

If movements of bigger works are to be included…. just in chamber music there are so many… Brahms’s last movement of his clarinet quintet, or Dvorak last movement of his string sextet, to name the first two that come to my head. If orchestra it has to be, we must stay with Brahms and the his famous last movement of his last symphony. As well known as it is… do people realise that he quotes not other than Tannhauser, right at the middle of it, when the music is harmonically most distant from the tonic? It is a magical moment.

 

Good luck with your thread. My available time at the moment is very limited and inconsistent, so I wont be able to participate as much as I would like.

Variations for Orchestra

Let me throw in one of my favorites, and probably seldom heard although there have been a good number of recordings of it: Meditations on a Theme by John Blow composed by Sir Arthur Bliss and first performed in 1955 by the City of Birmingham Symphony under Rudolph Schwarz.  That orchestra later recorded it with Hugo Rignold conducting (Lyrita). Other recordings I know of are conducted by Vernon Handley (also City of Birmingham Symphony - EMI), David Lloyd-Jones (Bournemouth Symphony - Naxos), and Barry Wordsworth (Royal Philharmonic - Decca).  I like them all but it was the Lyrita recording that I first heard and the one I most listen to.  Give it a try - you will not be disappointed.

Bliss
Variations for Orchestra...only.

This thread, as the title suggests, is about to deal with Variations for Orchestra only, in any form, i.e. complete Symphonic works or Movements in Concertos or Symphonies. If we have to include all kind of Variations for any instrumental medium, we will expand almost ad infinitum.

Bliss' Meditation on a Theme by John Blow is his best work and it is worth noting here (thanks for that Bliss). However, Elgar's Enigma Variations remain the finest specimen of the British legacy to this genre.

Brahms' last Movement of his last Symphony is a also a glorious specimen of a Symphonic Passacaglia. Still, for the most characteristic and celebrated work of Brahms in the medium is his Variations on a Theme by Haydn, although its original form was for Two Pianos.

If I have to add another most well-known and very fine work in the Concerto field, I would mention Rachmaninov's Rapsody on a Theme by Paganini: a magnificent work, in concerto form, using the Variations with such imagination, creativity and mastery.

Parla

Not forgetting the second

Not forgetting the second movement of the "Surprise" symphony by Haydn....... 

Speaking of the finale of the Eroica, Parla, do you ever feel that it is a bit out of place in the symphony as a whole? 

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I was doing nothing but what popped into my head were more quite obvious variations that I'm sure we are all familiar with: Tchaikovsky Suite #3 (final movement - Theme and Variations), Dvorak Symphonic Variations, Dohnanyi Variations on a Nursery Song, Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra and Bax Symphonic Variations (well, maybe that last one is not all that familiar).  I'm sure if I went through my record collection many more would turn up but that would be cheating.

Bliss
Not forgetting the third, totally

Hi Jane,

 

You may realize that the Eroica's last movement's main theme can be traced to the first couple of pages of the first movement.

Haydn's Surprise and Beethoven's Finale Variations Movements.

Haydn's Second Movement is very well spotted, Jane, as an excellent orchestral Variations Movement. After the initial and "surprising" fortissimo chord at the end of a moving all the way piano opening theme, the Variations are developed in an almost innocuous way in quiet or loud passages, but the threat of a second identical or similar chord, although it is hovering throughout keeping the attentive audience in suspense, it never comes!

As for the Eroica question, with Beethoven, one may be prepared that in quite a few of his works, movements or parts of them might look "out of place" ("Moonlight" Sonata as a whole, Second Movement of the String Quartet in c minor, OP. 18 no.4 and so on). However, the Finale of the Eroica is not that disconnected or, much more, unconnected as for the rest of the Symphony (perhaps the Scherzo looks a bit...strange, particularly in the Trio section).

First of all, the main theme of the Finale could be traced, in various ways, in all the previous Movements of the work (not only in the "first couple of pages of the first movement"). Besides, in the developing Variations, the composer provides an exuberant resolution to an otherwise solemn, tense and quite serious work.

Parla

More Works for Orchestral Variations.

Bliss gave us some significant or at least interesting (and, in some ways, familiar) works written in Variation form for Orchestra. 

Tchaikovsky's last Movement of Suite No.3 is at least a very well crafted one, in fine Variation form. However, speaking for Tchaikovsky, his Rokoko Variations for Cello and Orchestra is a more celebrated, extremely well written for the solo instrument and very refined for the Orchestra and, in a way, more...familiar work.

Dvorak's Symphonic Variations is a quite significant work, going along with the more well-established Brahms' Variations on a theme by Haydn, while it is an iconic work in this medium, in any case.

Dohnanyi's Variations on a Nursery Song is the third and, perhaps, the least familiar but almost equally significant work, in the form for a Piano and Orchestra, along with the most perfected Variations Symphoniques by Franck and the most celebrated and very well-known Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a theme by Paganini.

Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra (written in 1926) might be well known to the twelve tone followers but Webern's Passacaglia (his Op.1!), written in 1908 is the actual pivotal work and "paradoxe" of a composer who follows the opposite track of what he used to be as the champion of the non-repetition in music and his strong convictions as for the then existing conventions in composition.

Finally, I believe a major work of all times in the form of Variations for Orchestra with principal soloists is the "Fantastic Variations" on Don Quichotte by Richard Strauss. A vaste musical picture of inspiring sonorous adventures in a very well conceived and written work.

On the flip side, a less known or perhaps "lost" in the context of a most celebrated and respected Concerto, the last movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, in c minor, is a magnificent specimen of a Movement, in Variation form, for Piano and Orchestra.

Any other revelation(s) or simply noting well-established works in this field?

Parla

I wasn't aware (tjh and Parla

I wasn't aware (tjh and Parla) that there were any such connections between the finale of the Erocia and the earlier movements. I had better have a look at that.......(Gould recorded an excellent version of the Eroica Variations, Camaron - one of his more successful non-Bach recordings).

Another one: I have always loved Mozart's sinfonia concertante for winds (K297b). It isn't a "major work", I suppose, and not everyone accepts it is completely authentic...... Anyway, the last movement is a wonderful theme and variations and it always cheers my up to hear it.

Hi Jane! Yes I have that

Hi Jane! Yes I have that recording…. But the truth is that the work has never gripped me. This will sound as heresy, but Beethoven's solo piano music I have always sort of struggled with, as a generalisation.

 

Here is what I consider a little known utter jewel: Stravinsky’s Chorale Variations. He takes Bach’s Canonic Variations for organ and makes them into an orchestra and chorus work, with some line added of his own. 10-11 Minutes of wonderful music.

 

Bliss, I’ll make sure I listen to your namesake’s Variations, it sounds interesting.

 

Anyone knows Reger’s charming Variations and fugue on a theme by Mozart?

 

Or Hindemith’s fantastic The Four Temperaments, for piano and orchestra and which I’ve commented on before?

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