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Theme and Variations Form

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Theme and Variations Form

I had to create a new tag for this, which means I haven't talked about it much--if at all! The theme and variations form has been a perennial genre for the last five centuries at least. I have had one of the very first examples of it in my repertoire for most of my career: Guardame las vacas by Luis de Narváez. Here is that quite simple piece:


That is played on the vihuela, an instrument that looks a lot like a guitar, but sounds a lot like a lute.

The variation form is particularly attractive to composers because it poses the basic problems of variety within consistency that underly all composition. The idea is that you take a simple theme--folk melodies are often popular--or a harmonic progression (this one is a romanesca, a melodic-harmonic formula popular in the 16th and 17th centuries) and see what you can do with it. Repeating the basic phrase and harmonic structure in each variation provides the consistency so you just have to come up with the variety.

But composers have found many different ways of approaching the form. A particularly interesting one was the Nocturnal by Benjamin Britten for guitar using the air "Come Heavy Sleep" by John Dowland as the theme, but instead of beginning with it, he places it at the end and works his way toward it. Quite ingenious! Here is a performance by Marcin Dylla:


Another very ingenious approach was taken by Beethoven in his "Eroica" Variations for piano. He first states the bass line to the theme and does four variations on it before giving us the actual theme followed by fifteen variations and a finale which is a fugue on that original bass line (plus its inversion) followed by an Andante con moto which is another variation on the theme, not the bass line. Here is a performance by Pierre-Laurant Aimard:


And I haven't even mentioned any of the really famous sets of variations. So it might be interesting to do a survey of the theme and variation form and how composers have worked with it. What do you think?


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