MASTERWORKS IV: Variation Voyage
Charles Ives 1874-1954
Charles Ives
Charles Ives
Variations on “America”

Orchestrated by William Schuman

Charles Ives was one of the few artists with the luxury – and talent – to exercise his full creative energies unimpeded by the need to eke out a living from his art. He was the son a New England bandleader who started him on his way to becoming one of the most innovative and independent composers. He learned the rudiments of polytonality and polyrhythm from his father, who allowed him to bang on the piano with his fist “as long as you know what you’re doing,” and sent him off to learn drums, piano and organ. As a composer, Ives always marched to a different drummer, never abandoning his fists at the piano. Although his father dreamed of his son as concert pianist, Ives embarked on a successful career in life insurance. He lived a double life, experimenting and composing in his idiosyncratic musical style, as well as applying his creativity and idealism to his business. His important new concepts for the life insurance industry, including estate planning, made Ives & Myrick the largest agency in the country.

At age 14, Ives became the youngest salaried church organist in Connecticut and started composing anthems and sacred songs for church service. Although he worked at music with remarkable discipline for his age, he was partially ashamed of it. When people asked him what he played, he replied, “shortstop.” In 1891, he composed his virtuoso Variations on “America” for organ, based on the old colonial hymn and the British national anthem, “God Save the King/Queen” [Victoria].

Ives’s compositional style became increasingly quirky and dissonant as he developed. Here, the variations follow the typical classical structure but are remarkably disparate in mood. After a rousing introduction, Example 1 Ives presents the unadorned melody. Example 2 The variations include some of his early experiments in polytonality Example 3 (although some of the polytonal interludes were added in 1909-10). Some are also frankly mocking and humorous, including a Flamenco-style variation in the minor mode. Example 4 Queen Victoria surely would not have been amused at this gifted teenager’s antics.

In 1963, Broadcast Music Inc. commissioned William Schuman to orchestrate Ives’s work. The orchestrated version was premiered in 1964 by the New York Philharmonic under Andre Kostelanetz. Schuman captured Ives’s spirit in a rollicking and zany orchestration.
Antonin Dvořák 1841-1904
Antonin Dvořák
Antonin Dvořák
Symphonic Variations, Op. 79

Considering his place as one of the foremost composers of the nineteenth century, Antonín Dvořák was something of a late bloomer, but not for want of musical talent and promise. Dvořák’s father was a butcher and had expected his son to go into the family trade. Only after his uncle had agreed to finance the boy’s musical education was the boy able extricate himself from the sausage links to follow his passion for music. Although trained as a church organist, Dvořák’s first career job was playing principal viola in the orchestra of Prague’s new Provincial Theatre. During this time, he practiced composition, producing songs, symphonies and entire operas, achieving no recognition until he was in his thirties.

After winning national prizes for several years in the 1870s, however, his work came to the attention of Johannes Brahms, who gave him his first real break. The older composer, whose reputation was at its height, promoted Dvořák to his own publisher, Simrock, who offered Dvořák his first commission in 1878, the Opus 46 set of Slavonic Dances.

In January 1877 Dvořák composed three part songs for male voices, the third of which was called “Huslar” (The Fiddler). That summer he followed them up with the Symphonic Variations – the story goes – on a dare from a friend who considered the theme of Huslar most unsuitable for the purpose. The work was not published until 1888 (hence the high opus number). Although the theme resembles a folk melody, especially in its departure from the classical major and minor modes of European classical music, Dvořák composed it himself, as he did almost all of his Slavonic themes. So, why then was it deemed unsuitable for a set of variations?

Once again, the answer lies in the fact that the tune doesn’t fit the classical conventions. Sets of variation are among the oldest forms in Western music. As early as the fourteenth century (and probably centuries earlier in unwritten improvisation), musicians were embellishing melodies. Often variations were a means for the performers to show off their technical mastery of an instrument as they decorated melodies with smaller and smaller – hence faster and faster – note values. Since the Renaissance, popular melodies, which frequently were the basis of sets of variations, usually consisted of a melody in ABA form, around eight or more measures in length and often with internal repeats. Well-known examples of this type are Mozart’s so-called “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” variations for piano and the numerous sets of variations on Paganini’s 24th Caprice. These themes also have in common the fact that within the context of the theme, at the end of the B section, there is usually a cadence in a key other than the tonic, or home key, so that each theme moves away from the tonic and then provides a satisfying return, with each variation, of course, following suit.

The problem with the Huslar theme is that although it conforms to the classic ABA structure, it stays doggedly in the tonic with no harmonic movement driving it forward – and, therefore, no tension demanding a satisfying resolution. To make matters more complicated, it is based on a different mode from the conventional classical major and minor. In the hands of the relatively unrecognized Dvořák, the challenge to make it interesting was formidable.

He met that challenge in several ways – and systematically at that. Throughout the 22-minute work consisting of 27 variations, he used every resource imaginable in his musical palette – changes in tempo, meter, harmony and orchestration – to bring variety, and even the unexpected, to the little tune. Example 1 The first few variations merely decorate the theme, à la Mozart. Example 2 As the complexity of the variations increases, Dvořák begins varying each strain, or section, differently, featuring orchestral color and blurring the distinction between the variations. He gradually begins to harmonize the theme with tremendous ingenuity, canceling its inherent monotony. Example 3 Then, in the manner of Brahms in his Variations on a Theme of Haydn, he includes a series of variations in which the theme is disguised or hidden, at times almost to the point of being virtually unrecognizable. Example 4 He incorporates it into native Bohemian dance rhythms and tempos, and there is even a long transformation covering several variations into a Viennese waltz. Example 5 Of course, there’s the mandatory variation in the “opposite mode” (in this case, minor), which is comprised of a series of lugubrious, melodramatic variations that are a setup for the vigorous finale. Example 6

The finale, a fugue – the most learned of all Western musical genres – makes witty allusions to the masters, especially Beethoven. Example 7 The coda, beginning with a peasant dance in the manner of Dvořák’s own Slavonic Dances, Example 8 finishes off the work with a pompous flourish – the musical equivalent of “So there!” Example 9
César Franck 1822-1890
César Franck
César Franck
Variations symphoniques (Symphonic Variations)

One has to be very careful when raising a child prodigy.

César Franck’s father took his cue from Leopold Mozart – with the opposite effect. Despite relentless parental prodding, the young César failed to score with the public. By nature self-effacing, he lived his life as an organist and teacher. But he had a steady job.

A Belgian by birth who lived and taught most of his life in France, Franck was one of the most influential music teachers of the period. Although he had composed since his childhood, his maturation as a composer came late in life while in his 50s and 60s. Franck was an easygoing, unassuming person, who never knew how to promote his own works. As a result, much of his music was either ignored during his lifetime or derided by the doctrinaire academicians. He achieved worldwide recognition only in the twentieth century.

But his students adored him, calling him “Pater seraphicus,” and his influence on the future of French music was enormous. Although he was appointed in 1871 as professor of organ at the Conservatoire, his classes evolved into de facto composition classes for the succeeding generation of major French composers, including Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Paul Dukas.

Franck composed in all genres, including several oratorios, but his most lasting compositions are his Symphony in D minor, a String Quintet, a Violin Sonata (so popular that it has been transcribed for everything from flute to double bass), the tone poem Psyche and the Variations symphoniques, composed in 1885 as a thank you note to his friend, the pianist Louis Diémer.

The Symphonic Variations are both strikingly original and subtle. The work does not follow the expected model of increasingly flamboyant variations set to two repeated strains. Rather, it is more of a passage from melancholy to joy, employing variations of different types on several motivic ideas. The melancholy introduction in F-sharp minor introduces two short musical motives that are the keystone of the piece: the first, a dotted rhythm first heard in the orchestra; Example 1 the second, a sighing little motive of four descending notes, two eighth notes followed by two quarter notes, played by the piano. Example 2 The little four-note sigh will recur, entirely transformed at the conclusion of the piece. Meanwhile, a center section, using a new melody sounding much like a French folksong, comprises six variations of the standard classical type that grow increasingly complex. Franck provided a hint of it at the beginning of the piece, Example 3 but he only presents the full theme before the variations. Example 4 A languid return to the sighing motive in the cellos Example 5 will lead into a set of riffs on the sigh with a new upbeat character in F-sharp major and increased tempo. Example 6
Benjamin Britten 1913-1976
Benjamin Britten
Benjamin Britten
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell (The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra), Op. 34

Benjamin Britten was one of the musical giants of the last century. While still a toddler, he showed exceptional musical promise, starting to compose and improvise at the piano at a very early age. By age 12 he had already composed six string quartets, ten piano sonatas, numerous suites of piano pieces and many songs. Although his dentist father was not enthusiastic about his son’s passion for a field that might not yield a decent living, his mother was Benjamin’s emotional lodestar. So convinced was she of her son’s talents that she openly expected his name to join the musical trinity, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as the fourth B.

While Britten did not quite fulfill his mother’s fantasy, he is unquestionably the single most important British composer of the twentieth century. His output included over a dozen each of operas, cantatas and song cycles, most of which were written with specific performers, venues or occasions in mind. His muse, for whom he composed much of his vocal music, was his life-long partner, tenor Peter Pears. Britten’s initial ambivalence and final acceptance of his own nature now seem dated. Also controversial was his pacifism at a time when his country stood poised on the brink of war. By the spring of 1939 his life had become so complicated and stultifying that he and Pears took the opportunity to travel to Canada to escape the pressure. With the outbreak of the war in September, they decided not to return to England and spent three years in the United States. In 1942, however, Britten returned home to do his share for the country’s morale, composing scores for concerts, radio dramatizations and films.

In 1946 Britten was asked to supply music for an educational film Instruments of the Orchestra. Given his admiration for the music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695), one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era as well as one of the greatest English composers ever, Britten chose a stirring hornpipe from the incidental music to Abdelazar, or, the Moor’s Revenge.

After introducing the theme with the full orchestra, Example 1 the four orchestral families – woodwinds, brass, strings and harp, and percussion – are introduced, each with a full variation on Purcell’s theme. There follow individual “portraits” of each instrument that captures the essence of its orchestral personality with very free variations on the theme. The cleverest and stunningly creative aspect of this piece is Britten’s enormous flexibility in the way he handles the old-fashioned variation idea. The piece concludes with a brilliant 14-voice orchestral fugue on the theme beginning with the piccolo, followed by each instrument or instrumental group in the order of their original solos. The fugue builds to a massive crescendo, at which point the original theme emerges, heralded by the horns and trombones.

The variations are extremely diverse but each one retains a recognizable feature of the theme without becoming boring. The percussion section solo, for example, retains only the rhythm of the theme. Example 2 The solo for the flutes and piccolo (with harp accompaniment), use only the first three notes of the theme. Example 3 In other solos, like the flashy waltz for the violins, Britten completely changes the harmonic structure so that the theme is barely recognizable. Example 4 Even the fugue subject bears only a remote – but still recognizable – relationship to the theme. Example 5 Identifying how each variation works is certainly not child’s play.

Originally presented with a narrator explaining the proceedings, the Guide is now frequently presented without narrator as a concerto for orchestra. In the 1950s, George Balanchine choreographed it for the New York City Ballet under the title Fanfare; each dancer represented an instrument indicated by a large appliqué on his or her costume.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018