This is why so many composers write variations, Tom Service reveals
Variations on a theme: Tom Service explores a time-honoured technique which, like life itself, offers infinite creative possibilities that very few composers have been able to resist
Variations on a theme: it’s a phenomenon that accounts for the connectedness yet diversity of life-forms from plankton to pachyderms, each member of a species a unique variation on its thematic genetic sequence.
In music, writing variations upon themes and ideas has been a constant in the range of techniques that composers, improvisers and performers have called upon for centuries.
The variation principle itself has been interpreted in fantastically various ways. There are the bass lines of the tune La Folia, a musical idea that has run like a beautiful infection through centuries of music history, with variations upon its maddeningly irresistible harmonic progression by composers from Corelli to Max Richter, Salieri to Rachmaninov.
There are the countless ways that a single composer like JS Bach used the variation principle in his life, from the 64 variations that make up the Chaconne from his D minor Solo Violin Partita to the bass line that runs through the 32 Goldberg Variations, musical fuel for that piece’s dazzling diversity of expression, character and counterpoint.
Sets of variations are compositional paradoxes of difference and connection. They may have elegant transitions from one variation to the next, or composers may revel in the chains of distinctive musical pearls they make resound next to one another. Yet each set of variations has a connection underneath their vertiginous diversity, thanks to their shared transformation of a single idea.
That’s especially obvious from the late 18th century onwards, when variations on themes began to proliferate. From Mozart’s on ‘Ah! vous dirai-je, maman’ – or ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ – to Rzewski’s on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated!’, composers play with their tunes, stretching a rubber band of recognition for all of us listening, and showing off their seemingly boundless compositional creativity.
So how, and why, does a set of variations end? Like the apparently limitless iterations of the human genome, composers could keep varying the same tune into a temporal infinity. Sorabji comes the closest of any composer yet, in his Sequentia Cyclica, variations on the Dies irae plainchant, recorded by pianist Jonathan Powell in an eight-hour tour de force.
Even on a smaller scale, sets of variations can both contain multitudes and suggest infinities: at the end of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for piano, 33 transformations of a unprepossessing waltz in which Beethoven traverses everything from operatic parody to cosmic fugue, and in which he even makes silence a subject for variation as well as the notes of his theme, the very final transformation of the tune is a menuet that dances at the edge of a universe of possibility.
Sets of variations might end, but their generating principle – for music, and for life – goes ceaselessly on.
Illustration: Maria Corte Maidagan
Tom Service is a familiar voice to BBC Radio 3 listeners, the station on which he has presented Music Matters since 2003 and his own programme The Listening Service, in which he breaks down how music works. He is also a monthly columnist for BBC Music Magazine. For many years, Service wrote for The Guardian, where he was chief classical music critic.