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Camaron - glad to hear you will be giving the Bliss Meditations a listen. I do not like to read too much about a composition before listening to it so will just say it has a good percussion section, including sheep bells. This all reminds me of my first acquaintance with Bruckner - back in the 1940s I bought, unlistened, Karl Bohm's Saxon State Orchestra (as it was named on the RCA Victor 78s) recording of the Bruckner 4th. I was so taken by it that I went out and bought his recording of the Bruckner 5th. I still have both today, along with his later LP recording of the 4th, and it remains my favorite Bruckner symphony. To hear the Scherzo complete (or nearly so) you have to play one 78 side twice - before and after the trio. Well, enough of this off-the-subject rambling. Back on subject, let me add Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis to the growing variations list.
In my last post I mentioned the VW Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. What I actually meant was the Fantasia on the Old 104th Psalm Tune, although maybe the Tallis work counts too.
Thanks, Jane, for reminding us of the charming Finale of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for winds. Not a major work but a characteristic movement of a well crafted score in Variation form.
Camaron, Reger's Variations on a theme by Mozart is one of his most "popular" works (if one can really talk about popular works of this composer). Not on a par with Brahms' Variations on a theme by Haydn. His Variations on a theme by Beethoven, less known and much less performed, are pleasant enough and an impressive and massive Fugue comes as the resolution of the work.
Hindemith's Four Temperaments is another intriguing work in this genre, but his most outstanding work, in a most inventive Variation form, is his plethoric score of the Symphonic Metamorphosis of themes by Weber. In this work, where the word Variation is replaced by the most creative "Metamorphosis", the composer seemed to pose the question: up to what point one can vary a melody without risking to transform the original in a way that is not recognisable? Hindemith responds by distorting the Weber themes with a sardonic humour and, at the same time, a concealed respect, demonstrating what an innovative score with an overfull instrumentation can produce.
Finally, if I may add another very extraordinary, most beautiful and quite profound piece of music, I would add the third slow movement of the Fourth Symphony by Mahler. A quite unusual work on an extended and varied theme which is developed along the way in actual variations.
Haydn wrote a good many symphonic slow movements in variation form. I particularly like those in the lovely little 91st symphony. I got to know it through Jochum's 1958 Bavarian recording coupled to the Drum Roll (which was the real reason I'd bought the record).
Mozart's 17th piano concerto (K453) also has a good set of variations for its finale.
I cannot think of any independent sets of orchestral variations before the 19th century. Ferdinand Ries wrote a charming set on "Rule Britannia" and Hummel also wrote some good concertante ones.
It is interesting that, although the Variation form existed before the 18th century, it was developed for the Orchestra at the end of the 18th century, initially in concertante works (predominantly in Mozart) and only with Haydn in Symphonic slow movements. Beethoven also used the Variation form in two of his Symphonies' slow movements (the Third and the NInth), both monumental. Schubert used this form only in his early Second Symphony's slow movement, beautifully written but not a major piece of work.
Czerny and Reicha (along with Ries and Hummel, as Phlogiston mentioned) and some less known composers have written some notable concertante works in Variations but, although well-crafted, they did not manage to be considered as "significant" works in this field.
Beethoven also used the Variation form in two of his Symphonies' slow movements (the Third and the NInth), both monumental.....
Beethoven also used the Variation form in two of his Symphonies' slow movements (the Third and the NInth), both monumental.....
For some reason I have never really thought of the slow movement of the 9th as being a "variation" movement - perhaps because there are two principal themes. For me, this is one of the truly great slow movements - Bruckner and much of Schubert is utterly unthinkable without this example to follow.
As for the Eroica - is the funeral march really a variation movment?
I look at this forum once in a blue moon - too much like peering into the void - but the composers who’ve surfaced deserve more attention. Try Webern’s Variations for Orchestra Op.30 - so concentrated that I recall a 1970s BBC College Concert where Gielen had the BBCSO play it twice, so that it could register more fully with the audience. There’s also Stravinsky’s Variations in Memoriam Aldous Huxley, twelve-note, late-period and itself highly compressed - his final orchestral work, as it happens. Camaron, there are two other wonderful orchestral sets by Reger - the Variations and Fugues on themes by Beethoven and Hiller. The latter work in particular is splendidly magniloquent and expansive, and I’m fond of it, though it’s the Reger of the organ music that really absorbs me.
This thread did jump out at me, because I’d spent some of today listening to Dessau’s Bach Variations. It’s a gnarly but also rather engaging piece, working with material by C.P.E. as well as J.S. Bach, along with a theme that combines the familiar B-A-C-H motif with a longer anagram for Schoenberg’s name (as in Berg’s Chamber Concerto - German musical nomenclature all the way, of course!). Other composers joined in, so two of the variations are by composers who like Dessau wrote in the former GDR, Friedrich Goldmann and Rudolf Wagner-Régeny. All these pieces reward attentive listening.
Hi singende teufel. Yes, I was aware of those works by Reger, although I still don’t know them. They are in a ever growing list of new works I want to listen to. You like Reger? Any other recommendations? I’ve long wanted to like him, if that makes sense, so every now and then I’ll play some of his music. But I do struggle with him. On paper he should be my thing: a sort of Brahms with a foot in the 20th century… only that he ain’t no Brahms
I don’t think anyone has mentioned Britten’s fantastic Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, for strings. I’m very fond of this music, I really love it.
Some more: Arensky has a very lovely, very romantic Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, and what a beautiful theme that is. Then, very unexpectedly Boris Tchaikovsky has a Sinfonietta for strings which is really melodic in a 19th century kind of way. It could pass as Dvorak in an inspired day, if you ask me. The third movement is a theme and variations, and again this is a rather catchy, unrestrainedly romantic theme, . Quite a surprise.
By the way you had me looking Desseau up singende teufel, never heard of him. Those Bach variations sound good, and the musette theme it uses is a good choice. On the list!!
Hi Camaron! I am indeed quite fond of Reger. His musical language is as harmonically adventurous as anyone’s in his time - which for the turn of the c20 is saying a lot - but it gets there through a deep, deep responsiveness to Bach’s contrapuntal boldness, added to a streak of Teutonic academicism which can take him over the top and halfway down the other side. Which means he can be very funny - the clichés about overblown gigantism get him wrong, I think. That said, there’s not a laugh in my main recommendation, which would have to be the extraordinary Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor for Organ, Op.127. The passacaglia is sheer granite, and phenomenally powerful. Unless you don’t like organ music per se I think you’ll be impressed. Of his organ works, try the seven Chorale Fantasias (scattered across his career), the C minor Fantasy and Fugue Op.29, and the Fantasy and Fugue on B-A-C-H. Then, I suppose, just explore - my favourite complete survey FWIW is Rosalinde Haas’s, but there are several, and more in the way of attractive miniatures than people think.
Beyond the organ: as you like the Mozart Variations you might enjoy the Ballet Suite and 4 Böcklin Pictures, and the Clarinet Quintet is superlative (there’s much chamber music, in fact). I admit I’ve never been quite so convinced by the violin and piano concertos.
Well, sorry about the Reger rave. Otherwise, some random variations:
· -- Operas: the variations heard in Berg’s Lulu. Before Berg's death they were part of the Lulu Suite, and in Cerha’s completion they're at the start of the last scene. They’re actually on the melody of a song by Frank Wedekind, author of the two plays used for Berg’s libretto. Though we don’t hear the words in the opera, the song, ‘Konfession,’ is a rather ambivalent celebration of female sexuality - fictionally voiced by a woman/prostitute whose power over men and endless sexual availability make her a figure of mythic and universal ‘femininity,’ it really suggests a certain kind of *male* fantasy.After the variations, we hear the tune played on an offstage barrel-organ at the start of the final scene. Its relevance to the opera is obvious, and B. himself discussed it.
· -- Also opera: Britten’s Turn of the Screw is pretty much shaped by a twelve-note theme which is heard at the end of the prologue, put through fifteen variations (one at the start of each new scene) and at the culmination used as the ground bass of a passacaglia (at first it’s the first six notes, and the rest of the theme is added slowly). Again, wonderful dramatic invention - to say more might spoil the opera if you don't know it.
· -- Henze’s luminous Symphony No.4, though in one movement, has a four-part scheme, the second of which is a set of variations. This is H. at his most richly quasi-tonal. The symphony started life as an extended finale to Act 2 of his opera König Hirsch, marking dramatically the seasons that the title-character (king transformed into stag) spends in the forest. This material was cut for the premiere, but the opera's uncut original has made a comeback.
· -- You mentioned Dvorak - the second movement of Franz Schmidt’s Second Symphony is a sometimes quite Dvorakian set of variations. I’m thinking particularly of the lovely surge of melody in Variation 8.
--Walter Braunfels's gloriously inventive Phantastische Erscheinungen eines Themas von Hector Berlioz.
· -- Finally: I would also strongly recommend the brief, intensely moving Variations on a Schubert Ländler of Detlev Müller-Siemens. It’s for a small ensemble of strings and wind, less than quarter of an hour long. We hear the Schubert and then the variations, at first agitated, and finally drifting off into fragile, melancholic, lingering fragments. The composer has implied that the piece has an elegiac quality, as ‘a reminder of a disappearing sound-world to which we may never fully return.’
Dessau: hope you’re not disappointed! if you’re not phobic about the former East Germany, well worth the trouble. I came to him through his aggressive, abrasive songs for Brecht’s plays, but his achievement is much wider. If you like, as I do, dour, rigorous and challenging German symphonies that don’t seek to ingratiate - Leo Spies’s Second Symphony is a wonderful example, but the one CD is out of print - Dessau may appeal. There are operas, and his In Memoriam Bertolt Brecht is the most militant and fist-shaking of three-movement laments. For a way in, though, the best bet might be Dessau’s Passover oratorio Hagadah shel Pessach; the Jewish composer left Germany for France, and wrote the piece there (1934-36) after the Nazis came to power. Its idiom is more various - happy children’s choruses as well as the grim tread of diaspora and pursuing armies - and its final words, set to a more upbeat march, are ‘Next year we shall be in Jerusalem, and next year free!’ Hard to hear with the benefit (?) of hindsight.
Enough thereof, but thanks, as it were, for listening. I remember the Arensky, and you’ve sent me back. I do know some of Boris Tchaikovsky’s music, and will definitely follow up the Sinfonietta!
That’s fantastic singende teufel, thanks for a wealth of good information! I particularly appreciate the pointers for Reger. I’ve heard no organ music by him, although right enough, I’ve heard enough people swearing by it! That Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue I’m already pursuing.
Also thanks for Schmidt’s pointer to his Second symphony. I’m growing very fond of him. I love his mighty 4th symphony, an exceptional work in my view. Or his piano quintets, one with clarinete, all for Paul Wittgenstein’s left hand. Incidentally Schmidt’s was Wittgenstein’s favourite composer and the piano and orchestra variations I’ve already mentioned his favourite among his commissioned works. He has to his credit at least another set of orchestral variations, the Hussar Variations, but these I don’t know yet.
Some more great music:
Gideon Klein was a Jewish Czech who sadly died (was murdered) in Auschwitz at the end of the War, aged 26. He has a wonderful string trio to his name, which has been transcribed for string orchestra (don’t know if by him). The music is clearly influenced by Bartok. The central main movement is a moving theme with variations.
Thanks to this thread I’ve revisited Edison Denisov’s Variations on the Theme of Bach's Chorale 'Es ist genug', and what heart-felt, beautiful and airy at times music it is. Incidentally Denisov orchestrated and reinvented for violin and orchestra Bach’s second partita for violin solo. Not just reworking, but a proper re-composition, with plenty of his dissonant chords thrown in. But the wonderful opening allemande he respects very much, and has been over the years my favourite rendition of a piece that I love particularly
Last for now, but not least, Kodaly has his very likable Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song for Orchestra, with a nicely balanced and varied orchestration.
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