• John McCabe
  • Haydn Variations (1983)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

Commissioned by the City Music Society, London

  • piano
  • 26 min

Programme Note

Commission by the City Music Society, and dedicated to Philip Fowke, this work takes as its theme the opening phrase of Haydn's Piano Sonata in G minor (his only sonata in this key). However, the theme is not heard at the beginning - the first two right-hand phrases only are heard in the middle of the central slow section, surrounded by remote harmonies giving it the air of something being recollected rather hazily. Nevertheless, everything in the work both melodically and harmonically does derive quite rigorously from the theme, even when the music seems far removed from it.

The overall scheme of the work falls into three clear sections, played without a break, though sudden pauses form an important feature of it. Indeed, its overall character is as much that of a sonata in three continuous movements rather than a straightforward set of variations. It moves from the fast, objective nature of the opening part, through the extended slow middle section and then a gradual, almost imperceptible increase in pace, to the objective virtuosity of the final section, after which there is a brief epilogue-like closing part ending on a reflective and rather questioning chord. The move from outward-looking virtuosity to the more subjective, intimate nature of the middle section and then back to a more "public" virtuosity is an essential part of the work's basic scheme.

The title has been chosen deliberately to imply both that this is not a conventional set of variations on a theme heard on a theme heard at the outset and that it has another Haydn connection. This is an extension of his characteristic "alternating variation" form, which in this piece works by combining two different variations within a single framework. Thus, there are a number of occasions on which phrases from two different variations alternate with each other to form a slightly larger unit. The work begins, after some octave flourishes, with an extremely objective, rather academic fugue (though based on a theme of almost primitive repetitiveness), the sort of piece one might normally expect towards the end of such a work rather than at the start - it is the clearest way of setting out not only the character of the work's opening but of stating several of the main variation ideas of the work (e.g. the repeated notes), and the sudden disruption of the fugue (a device which recurs towards the end of the work in a more bravura context) is another idea used and varied during the course of the variations. It is above all a virtuoso keyboard work, but one which is nevertheless "through-composed" to a quite rigorous extent.
© John McCabe