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variations (music)

Composition is a gift or faculty I admire anyway - my almost imperceptible ability only fits me to admire. When it then comes to variations, teasing so much more out of an idea than it might at first seem to offer ... sometimes my rueful eyes fill with tears.
V/007

A number of my favourite pieces are in variation form, whether or not through early exposure to Britten's Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra. No exhaustive list is possible, and if I cite the likes of Haydn, Rachmaninoff, Handel and Vaughan Williams this is not to suggest I don't also savour Purcell or Rameau or Dvorak. The quiet masters of this craft, however, have to be Brahms and Mendelssohn.

Haydn
String quartet [op.] with its variations on the Austrian hymn, the Horn Signal symphony, the last movement of the Farewell; and probably much else besides that my ignorance has so far kept me from discovering.
Rachmaninoff
Oh, the apparently unbridled lushness of the Paganini variations, in fact as controlled and muscular as an exuberant dancer.
Handel
The Harmonious Blacksmith, of course, and then his own variations on the theme Brahms later took up for his incomparable Handel variations.
Vaughan Williams
Five variants on Dives and Lazarus or the Tallis fantasia, as English as a Turner landscape; art born out of love.
Brahms
Paganini, Haydn, himself – think of the Nachklang sonata with its plaintive echoes of a song echoing a carol – and then, supremely, Handel. See elsewhere to learn about my command performance.
Mendelssohn
Not a dilettante, but a man whose mind span music as easily as a lark or nightingale spills its song. We can't analyse and evaluate bird-songs, but we can learn to appreciate the grace with which the composer spins a sober sixteen bars' of theme into the deeply satisfying Variations Sérieuses and never puts a foot wrong.
And then there's the sixth organ sonata, based on Luther's Vater unser and including one of the most perfect fugues I have ever heard. Here, though, we are moving into a magical territory where themes themselves lie in wait to call the best out of any passing musician. Vater unser and Sor Monica, to name two examples that have struck me, lead their own rich and varied life in hundreds of different guises.


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