• John Harbison
  • Variations (1982)

  • Associated Music Publishers Inc (World)
  • cl, vn, pf
  • 23 min

Programme Note

Completed in January 1982, Token Creek Wisconsin
Commissioned by Frank Taplin
Written for Rose Mary Harbison, David Satz, and Ursula Oppens

I first thought of this piece as a set of dances in a sequence: spirit-dance, body-dance, soul-dance, and summation-finale. The thought was set in motion by seeing a sculpted image of the Canaanite fertility goddess Astarte dancing, and my first intention was to name the piece for her. But as I went to work I was interrupted, or so I thought, by what was clearly a variation subject, and I put the dances aside, only to have them resurface in surprising guises.

I had long felt a set of variations coming on, and had formed and image of the kind of variation piece I would write. I knew I favored an archetypal rather than quirky subject, and that I wanted the repeat structure, harmonic plan, and melodic shape fully perceptible throughout the set: not a developing variation, in the Mahler-Schoenberg sense, but a play of skill and emotion upon a ground. But still the present piece took me by surprise. I had imagined deducing the proper subject, instead it just appeared. I had imagined writing variations, then arranging them in proper sequence, instead I wrote them in order, grouped by their pulsation (the dance suite idea had persisted.)

Here a general comment on variation writing may serve to illuminate some corners of the piece. Though it is fashionable in commentary on variations to point up the paltriness of the theme, in fact the theme is crucial, and should at best contain a concentration of ardently advocated and (if possible) culturally shared musical assumptions. In this sense Diabelli’s waltz or Paganini’s a-minor tune are the sturdiest kind of structural microcosms capable of releasing forces locked within themselves. Thus the composer is not showing his or her virtuosity in spite of the theme’s lack of promise, but rather revealing the promise in the normative and typical.

In this set the theme is presented canonically at the minor third below, a fact which has harmonic and motivic consequences throughout. Later canons retain this pitch interval but vary the time interval of entrance. A brief description follows:

I. Violin and clarinet alone, canon at the quarter. This is the theme, but because of its leader-follower relationship it is also a variation. It is in two sections, each repeated, the second section doubles the length of the first. Though many variation sets are based on themes in balanced halves, I enjoyed the sense of expansion, and sometimes of return that this phrase structure affords.

II. Piano alone. This seems like an immediate harmonic digression. It emphasizes phrase structure more than harmony, but the b-f tritone lurking in the left hand turns out to be very important. The misterioso character which we meet here dominates the first five variations.

III. Clarinet solo, with piano. The long clarinet melody gives rise to a harmonization close to the theme, but warmer and more detailed.

IV. Violin solo, with piano. This is a very covered and enigmatic piece, less accessible but more searching than the clarinet variation.

V. Tutti, canon at the quarter. The undercurrent of energy which accumulates here serves both to close off the first group and to introduce the next.

VI. Violin and clarinet alone, canon at the eighth. This is the first of the earth dances, firm in pulsation but irregular in grouping.

VII. Violin solo, with piano. This begins a series of virtuoso variations in which the skill of the player helps to stretch the harmonic and motivic range of the subject.

VIII. Clarinet solo with piano. A test of both drive and stamina, this variation centers on a motive which collapse inward.

IX. Piano solo with violin and clarinet. This through composed variation continues and extends the propensity for asymmetrical rhythmic groupings, hearable against a constant pulsation.

X. Tutti, canon at the sixteenth. This is the culmination, peina voce, of the explosive currents which run through the second group.

XI. Symbol. The next five variations are all tutti. First we have a harmonic compression of what the variations have achieved so far. Triple meter appears here, to stay until variation XIV.

XII. Fughetta. The linear shape is close to an inversion of the theme, and the original harmonic scheme is evident.

XIII. Waltz, canon at the dotted half. The piano has different accompaniments for each repeat of the long-lined melody, giving the effect of a through composed variation.

XIV. Passacaglia, canon at the half. Through composed, the theme in the left hand of the piano, the canon in the clarinet and violin, the obligato in the piano right hand, this is a texture variation, shifting character gradually as it glides to its destination.

XV. This is the destination, an obligato aria, in which the melody enters late, and leaves early to allow the piano to complete its self-sufficient soliloquy.

Finale and epilogue. The canonic principle works itself out with a vengeance. After a brutally frank exposition the finale takes many sharp turns, with full variations embedded within. The epilogue is itself a variation without repeats, looking back on what has passed, not dispassionately.

—John Harbison