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11 Variations on a Brisk Theme in B


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Hello!  I haven't posted any of my music in a while so I thought I'd share this piece that I worked on just before joining this website.  I just recently decided that it's finished enough and polished it up in MuseScore.  At this point I was already writing my music on paper and entering it into the sequencer so I used the old midi to create a nicer looking score.  As the title says there are 11 variations all separated by a pause.  Some of the variations have subtitles - the 4th is "Roulade", the 5th is "Polyphonic", the 7th is titled "Mordants", the 8th is "Trills", the 9th is a Polonaise, the 10th is a Mazurka and the final 11th variation is titled "Harp" and inspired by Liszt.  I thought the last variation sounded conclusive and exhaustive enough to be the final one but let me know what you think!

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I had a lot of fun listening to this. The theme itself seems to be very dense and it's got a bunch of counterpoint going on too, so I think this works a little against the idea of the piece. To be more precise, I think that the theme is far too complex and interesting (if there's such a thing, huh.) There's an argument to be made about the compositional showmanship of taking a plain and otherwise unremarkable theme and turning it into something amazing, which is I think probably fundamental to the idea of the variation cycle as a concept. If you start with something already really cool, where do you go from there?

 

As for the variations, I think what you tried to do is take the harmony and melodic contours of the theme and then shuffle them around so that different parts of the theme's character can shine through. I think the best variation that demonstrates this is No.6. Where 5 is a lot more academic (pseudo fugue, etc.) it still retains a lot of the original character but 6 seems really like its own thing. In my opinion, that's the first "proper" variation you did that actually turns things around and shows something unique about the theme (specially the violent harmony switching in measures 98-99 and then again in 102-103.) Variation 3 also does a good job breaking away, but it a more rhythmic way.

 

By the way, please write cautionary accidentals like the natural E in measure 99 on the first beat. That would help the readability greatly.

 

The thing is, I feel that writing a theme and variations piece is fundamentally an experimental endeavor. There's also something to be said about how it helps develop your compositional technique too, but in the end you have to pick your goals a little more clearly. What I mean by that is, either you go full out and really take those variations in radically different directions, or you're trying to emulate a more traditional form. Since the kind of writing on display here is pretty much early 20th century "expanded" tonality (Hindemith, Bartok, etc,) I think you could've taken this further if you had only let each variation play out for longer. That is to say, instead of making 11, make only 6 but make them twice as long, or longer.

 

Historically speaking, theme and variation pieces post-Beethoven are intrinsically linked with the development of the Sonata form (and its fundamental principles of development and theme manipulation.) Therefore, seeing it from that perspective, it's expected that you'll be not just changing some things here and there, but having each variation be almost its own development episode. Not only that, but this ties into the overall structure of the piece as well. And while we're on the topic of overall structure, let me address this:

1 hour ago, PeterthePapercomPoser said:

I thought the last variation sounded conclusive and exhaustive enough to be the final one

The reason why it's hard to "end" a variation cycle at first glance is because, all things being equal, there is no explicit hierarchy of importance in the variations. In practice, this isn't true at all. You noticed how you tended to still structure it "towards an ending," or a climax, or some dramatic element that lends itself to imply a certain form. If you were to make this a conscious decision and structure your variations in such way that they do form a coherent form, the overall form would probably be less vague or unfocused. Think, for example, of the Rondo form as Beethoven (and later composers) used it, where the ritornell and the first contrast serve as Themes A and B respectively, with the rest of the rondo alternating between development and reprises (often false reprises until the very end.) A rondo in principle has a very similar idea to a variation cycle, though the sections between each ritornell reprise don't necessarily have to be bound to the ritornell at all.

 

But taking this to a more practical level, and since I already mentioned Beethoven a few times, why not actually just show something that illustrates my point?

So how did he solve the "structure" problem here? Well he clearly defined an introduction and an ending, for starters. The introduction is quite long and it's got elements of the theme before the theme actually plays (the FF staccato figures for example, which appear on the theme's B part.) It's clear that there's a very strong experimental character here, specially how that same staccato figure is used almost to "break up" the introduction. And then, of course, the introduction is almost its own little mini-variations cycle, specially looking at how it develops to the A quattro and then back, but then when the actual theme appears it appears almost as if it was the reprise of the introduction. Pretty cool. You can even argue that the introduction, written this way, is an analog to the exposition of a sonata and I'm sure Beethoven probably had a similar idea as well (introduction and theme = exposition, variations = development.)

 

Then if you notice the variations themselves, they're quite a bit more than just taking the theme and doing something to it and calling it a day. At the beginning they're very similar, but even then already with the first variation there's a bunch of deviation, but by the second it goes off the rails dramatically with the quasi-cadence in the middle. This goes on, one variation "leading" into the other so there are no real pauses in between each variation most of the time, but rather the pauses are dramatic and structurally detached from the "theoretical" variation structure. Not always, of course, but this mix and matching helps make the piece feel like a single coherent whole rather than a series of detached variations.

 

Anyway, enough analyzing Beethoven. In your case I think for the next theme and variation piece you write (if you're still interested in the idea,) try to think more long-form than just a set of miniatures based on a single theme. I think you'll also find that you have a lot more freedom that way, too.

 

Keep up the good work.

 

 

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Minus the academic analysis, I'd mostly agree with the above comment. The initial theme is too busy on its own to be really conducive to a set of variations, and the variations themselves don't go far enough afield to make the whole journey interesting.

Maybe you could "reverse engineer" a much simpler theme that, with the same chord changes, underlies all of these variations, and thereby give yourself more directions to go in?

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When I look at the sheet music, I can see and much more clearly imagine or hear the theme that you have, but it is indeed too obscured by the other lines.

The main issue I would say is less so even the "busyness" of it, but because they're all on the same instrument and at basically the same dynamics, it's really hard to make out; even if it is the top voice.

Another thing I would say is holding it back is that some of your harmonies are voiced a little too low with regards to the overtone series. The resulting dissonance is quite jarring when compared to the rest of the lines blending like they do.

If it were me, I would simplify the accompaniment and make the bulk of the variation come from the melody itself; dial back the 1st-species counterpoint parts a bit, which is a little too heavy and contributes to the obscuration of the theme IMO + dynamics on the other lines. 

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Quite a clever piece and not one I'm desperate to try playing. I hate rapid wrist staccato as in bar 47, Var II !

Chopin's "Still is the night" (or whatever) study - to be official IIRC it's Op10 No 3 - was bad enough. And those triplets and duplets in the same hand don't look too beckoning, Var III bars 64/66. Var IV bar 70 and a few others would need both hands not to know what the other was doing. Nice piano technique though -it sort of fleets through. 

Again in Var V, the triplets and duplets and they'd need long fingers at the rate you're expecting them to be played. It may not seem fast but the second beat of bar 84 may be a stretch problem.

Altogether this would take Lisztian technique and finger independence but the rendering comes over very well. I thought the cadences at each variation were sometimes abrupt but guessed this is the effect you were after to separate the variations. They're far from samey but at times the bravura delivery may make a listener wonder if a new variation or just a development of the existing one was under way.

A change of key here and there felt necessary. Just my reaction - and perhaps a few slower paced ones which would have offset the faster ones a little better.  But what you've ended up with is a grand development  on the opening theme.

Great!

Cheers, Quinn

Edited by Quinn
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