The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music interview: Composer John Harbison discusses Theme and Variations before his Tuesday night lecture-recital at Token Creek Festival

August 27, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

On this Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m., this year’s Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will feature a lecture-recital program that explores theme and variations.

Award-winning composer and festival co-director John Harbison (below), who teaches at MIT, will discuss the long-lived form with specific examples from music by Schubert (Variations in A-flat for piano, four hands), Roger Sessions (Sonata No. 1) and himself (Piano Sonata No. 2).

For information, here is a link to the festival – with information about tickets and directions – and a link to that particular program:

For myself, the enduring popularity or appeal of the theme and variations form can be explained in part because, like the sonata form and like the invention of polyphony, it works much the same way that human thought works.

I think you can look at theme and variations as a kind of algebra of sound, in which the formula “x times y equals z” can be permutated in so many different ways and yield so many results.

But what really matters is what Harbison, who uses the form, thinks. So he graciously agreed to a telephone interview about his lecture recital – to which tickets are still available –which will feature returning pianist Judith Gordon and new pianist Ryan McCullough (below).

Theme-and-Variations is common in all periods. Why did you choose the topic? Why is the form so long-lived and what is its appeal?

Part of it for us is that at Token Creek we do both jazz and concert music, and some of the layers overlap. Jazz improvisation is essentially variations, or ground- based like a passacaglia.

Variations are in every piece on every program this year. So we thought we would focus on the principle and see how it operates in music and in what ways it is meaningful as a developmental principle and follow it moment by moment.

The principal has been used in a very broad way. As a term, it is a little like blues. The blues is a specific chord pattern that is closely defined, a well-known harmonic form. But it is also a generic and large category of music that has emotional connotation that may or may not follow that form. Variations are the same way. Some are stricter and some are looser.

Brahms is the big change into Schoenberg because he uses variations on variations. Flexibility counts. It’s been successful as a way of presenting music because it offers listeners a way to follow the process through territory that without that anchor might seem very challenging.

What do you see as the larger purpose or meaning of theme and variations and their appeal to composers, performers and listeners?

Some composers have a mentality that draws them to them more than others. There are very good composers who get pleasure out of the form.

What are the points you want to make about the form in your remarks?

You can have variations with a theme; but you can also have variations without a theme that are still very strict. I’ll try to give people some historical background.

There are instances of the very old and the very new. Bach’s “Goldberg”s are one of the oldest examples. Certain composers made a real point of using theme and variations. There is Purcell, Bach, Haydn, rarely Mozart, Beethoven (who pushes the recognition issue hard that asks are we still hearing the theme and who is extremely interesting in pushing out the connections), Stravinsky and Webern (below) whose variations are a classic.

There continue to be interesting pieces involving theme and variations, including some of the composers at Tanglewood’s new music festival. In some pieces the variations are strictly worked out but there is no real theme.

Do you use it often in your own compositions?

I use it reasonably often but I almost always favor the form in which there is no given subject or theme. And the question, then, is: What is there? Certain patterns – harmonic and rhythmic — can be remembered.

I find it a rewarding form to write in. If you spend as much time playing jazz as I have, you’re very ingrained with the idea of elaborating on a ground.

Can you comment briefly on the specific works for this program?

Schubert has a tune and as a memory device that helps. But in some ways way what turns out to me more important is the harmonies. It’s a big guide to a listener. It presents a certain kind of logic to the listeners.

Anything you want to say or add about theme and variations or this lecture-recital?

There will be some examples of the players and some connections.

Roger Sessions (below) was my teacher, and Schubert was a favorite composer of his because of the harmonic invention and freedom.

Each composer is a variation on a theme of another composer.

Having a given element is not only interesting for the composer; it is also helpful for the listener.

*                    *                  *

Do you like theme and variations?

Is there particular set or composer whose work in that form you like or dislike?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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