George Grove.

A dictionary of music and musicians (A.D. 1450-1889) by eminent writers, English and foreign : with illustrations and woodcuts (Volume 4) online

. (page 51 of 194)
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fourth and sixth variations, and illustrate the
style and way of applying the characteristic
figures very happily. The upper part is the
tune of the theme,

Ex. 1. Var. 4.



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Ex. 2. Var. 6.



P



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:^=i:



r,-^- :*: J.'^J. J._i_ J_



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1 1

Byrd's variations are remarkable not only for
their intrinsic qualities, but also as rare exam-
ples of melodic treatment in those early days,
when composers were more inclined to notice the



VARIATIONS.

bass than the tune. Bull was by no means so
great a genius as Byrd, but he had a vein of
melody, a good deal of vivacity, and a con-
siderable sense of effect. In ' Les Buffons ' the
former gift is scarcely brought into play, but
the two latter are very serviceable. The theme
is the simplest possible succession of chords, aa
follows : —

Ex. 3.



i



m^



- {-P—o — I-



I ' I



30






— s


— e?


^




S! •

ri li


1 1


J , J


bg — =a










r^


Hi




1— e;


-f=— * — r^-
• — '



Upon this fourteen variations are constructed,
which are varied and contrasted with one an-
other throughout, upon the same general princi-
ples of succession as in Byrd's series. Many of
them are merely made of scale passages, or rather
commonplace figures ; but some are well de-
vised, and the two following are interesting .as
examples of the freedom with which composers
had learnt to treat structural variations even ia
such early days. Ex. 4 is the beginning of the
second variation, and Ex. 5 is the thirteenth^
which flows out of the one preceding it.

Ex. 4.



^^^



^EE^^^r-'F^EJEib^J^




:^i^^^3:



3fJ



r V



VARIATIONS.

In the time which followed Byrd and Bull the
5st energies of composers were chiefly directed
» the development of such instrumental forms
J the Suite and the Canzona, and the earlier
inds of Sonata ; and Sets of Variations were not
> common. There are a few examples among
rescobaldi's compositions ; as the ' Aria detta
alletto ' in the second book of Toccatas, Can-
)nas, etc., which is curious on account of the
ay the variations are put into different times ;
at his works of the kind are on the whole
sither so interesting nor so satisfactory as
yrd's. It is also common to meet with an
;casional variation on one or more of the regu-
r dance-movements in the Suites; and in (hat
jsition they were commonly called Doubles,
here is a curious and unusual experiment
L a Suite of Kuhnau's in E minor, in which the
Durante in 6-4 time is a complete variation of
le Allemande in common time that precedes
. But the art of varying a theme of some sort
as cultivated to a greater extent about this
me under other guises. In Germany com-
bers were fond of harmonising their Chorales
I all sorts of ingenious ways, such as are found
ter in perfection in Bach's Cantatas and Pas-
ons ; they also ixsed the Chorales as a kind of
anto fermo upon which they based elaborate
.ovements for the organ, full of ingenious and
Fective figures and various devices of counter-
)int; and not a little of the great development
■ organ-playing, which culminated in J. S. Bach,
as carried on by the cultivation of this form of
•t. Another form which was more obviously
lied to the sets of variations, and indeed can
L some cases hardly be distinguished from them,
as the ground-bass or basso ostinato, which was

very favourite form of art all over Europe
aricg the greater part of the 17th century.
he principle of following the bass of the
leme is indeed constantly made use of in
iriations, and in theory the only diflference
stween the two forms is that in a ground-
iss the bass passage, which is repeated over
Lid over again, is the whole bond of connec-
on which joins the series together ; while in
iriations the bass may change entirely so long
5 the theme is recognisable either by means of
le melody or the succession of the harmonies.
'Ut in practice, though there are many exam-
les in which a good clear bass figure is made to
ersist with obstinate regularity in this form,
. often gave place to the succession of the har-
lonies, or was itself so varied as to become
;arcely recognisable. For instance, a so-called
rround by Blow in E minor, with twenty-
ight divisions, begins with a section that is
mch more like a theme for variations ; and
dough the bass moves in good steps, it has no
ery decided figure whatever. A comparison
f the first half of the so-called ground with the
Drresponding part of the bass of the twentieth
ivision will show that the view musicians then
3ok of the repetitions was at least a liberal
ae : — ■



VARIATIONS.



219



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-J 1 u — I —



-^ gL



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: P p- i=



Ex.7., .♦



• pr» »' -H.




In this case the outline of the bass as defined
by the successive steps downwards is pretty well
maintained, but in a few other divisions which
are more elaborately constructed, not only is the
bass altered, but even harmonies which do not
strictly correspond to the originals are intro-
duced. Such treatment clearly destroys the in-
dividuality of the form of art, and makes the
work to all intents a theme with variations,
under limitations. The real type of movement
constructed on a ground-bass has a decided
character of its own, as the obstinate reiteration
of a good figure is necessarily a striking bond
of connection throughout the piece ; and if the
figures built upon it are well varied it can be
made very amusing. In Purcell's use of this form,
which he was evidently fond of, the type is kept
much purer, and the divisions on the ground are
really what they pretend to be. A quotation of
the bass of a ground in one of his Suites will
illustrate better than any description the differ-
ence between the real thing and a hybrid like
Blow's : —
Ex.8.



^^ r* i^ ^^^S



Sit=ls3:



i^.



But even so genuine a specimen as Purcell's i-s
closely allied to a theme with variations ; and
at a time when the form was so popular that it
was not only a favourite with composers, but
the constant resource of performers with any
talent for extemporising to show off their skill in
two directions at once, it seems very likely that
the more elastic but less pure form adopted by
Blow and others should have been easily allowed
to pass in the crowd of experiments ; and thus
composers were constantly developing the form
of ' Theme and Variations ' under another name.

A celebrated example which bears upon this
question is the twelfth and last Sonata of Co-
relli's Opera Quinta, which is called ' La Follia.'
This is sometimes described as a Theme and
twenty-two variations, and sometimes as Divi-
sions on a ground. The bass of the theme was
well known in those days as Farinelli's Ground,
from the inventor, and was commonly used by
musicians and composers, as for instance by
Vivaldi. Hawkins speaks of it as ' the favourite
air Icnown in England as Farinelli's Ground,'



220



VAEIATIONS.



showing a confusion in his mind even as to the
difference between a ' ground ' and a tune. In
Corelli's work the bass is not repeated at all
regularly, so it is to all intents and purposes a
series of free variations. These are most of them
very simple, being different forms of arpeggios
on the harmonies of the theme, but they are
well devised so as to contrast and set off one
anothei", and are effective in their way for the
violin. The tempos vary from Adagio and An-
dante to Allegro and Vivace, and the time-
signatures also, as 3-4, 4-4, and 3-8. Corelli
evidently took an easy view of variations, for
both in this set and in the Chaconne in the
twelfth Sonata of op. 2, the harmonies are not
at all strictly followed, and occasionally have
next to nothing to do with the theme for several
bars together; and this appears to have been
rather a chiiracteristic of the Italian style of
writing such things. The treatment of the form
in this instance, and in many others of nearly the
same period (as those by Blow, and many by
Locatelli and others a little later), together with
the lax way in which Hawkins speaks of the
subject, tend to the conclusion that this popular
form of Ground-bass movement was gradually
becoming mixed up with the form of Theme-
and-Variations, and trenching on its province.
Even the length of the bass in the Follia and
(ither examples is in favour of this view, because
the effect of the ground-bass is lost when it
extends beyond very moderate limits. The best
examples are after such a concise fasliion as the
bass quoted from Purcell, and such superb speci-
mens as the 'Crucifixus' in Bach's Mass, his
Passacaglia in C minor, and similar works by
Buxtehude for the organ. If the ground-bass
has several clauses, as in Corelli's Follia or Blow's
piece (Ex. 6), it loses its effect and has to be
treated after the manner of a theme ; and the
adoption of long periods led composers to that
treatment, at the same time that the habit of
looking at their subject in the direction of the
bass rather than the upper part, influenced their
manner of dealing with variations.

This condition of things throws an interesting
light upon J. S. Bach's thirty Variations on an
Aria in G major for a harpsichord with two rows
of keys, which is the first very important work
of its kind, and still among the most remark-
able in existence, though it is never played in
public in consequence of the difficulty of giving
due effect on one row of keys to the rapid cross-
ing passages which are written for two. The Aria
which serves for tlieme is not after the manner
of a modern aria, but is a dance movement like
those in the Suites. It is in fact a Sarabande
of the expressive and elaborate kind familiar
among Bach's works ; it has plenty of fine melody
but no catching tune, and nothing to invite
melodic variations of the modern kind. On tlie
other hand, it is constructed of very broad and
simple successions of harmony, with the bass mov-
ing a step of some sort in almost every bar ; and
upon this motion of bass or harmonies tlie whole
series of variations is really constructed. It is



VARIATIONS.

therefore actually almost as much of a groun
bass movement as Corelli's Follia, or Blow
example. The actual bass figure is not repeatei
but either the steps by which it moves or tl
regular changes of the harmony are alwa;
represented in some way under the elaborate te:
ture of the figures. In fact, what Bach does
to take out the harmonic framework upon whic
tlie Aria is built, and use it to build thirty oth<
little movements upon. The way in which thes
are developed from the original will be best ui
derstood by a comparison of the opening bars <
some of the variations with the correspondir
portion of the bass of the theme.

The following is the bass of the first eight bai

of the Aria, with figures to represent the prii

cipal harmonies ; —

Ex. 9.



il^



3=



(n)



(P)



('■)



(rf)



(«)



=2^;^*:



(/)



-k,it— -[—



io)



(ft)



In a good many variations, such as the is
2nd, 4th, 12th, and 22nd, these steps are vei
clearly maintained. The bass figure of the 2n
variation will serve to illustrate this : —




(.) (/) (9) -*■ W ,

It is very rare however that the same position
of the chords are rigidly adhered to throughou!
All positions are held to be intercbangeabl
This would be less possible in dealing with '
modern theme with weak or irregular motioi-
of harmony; but where the changes are t\
strict and clear, the successions are traceabl''
even through a looser treatment of the origina*':
An example which will illustrate Bach's metho
of interchanging positions of the same chord:
and the ingeniiity with which he builds oe ]
form upon another, is the opening of the tent
variation, which is a complete little four-pai
Fughetta : —

Ex. 11.




VAEIATIONS.



VAEIATIONS.



221



In bar (6) the iirst position of the chord of the
jminant is implied instead of its first inversion ;

bar (c) there is a similar interchange, and in
TS {d) and (g) the principal empbasis of the bar
lis upon a first inversion instead of a first posi-
m of the same chwd.

In other variations he goes much further still.
1 the ninth the strict succession of chords is
jquently altered, but in such a way that the
aracter and general contour of the harmonic
ccession is still to be felt in the background.
^r instance, in the passage corresponding to
i,rs (e) and (/) the liarmonies of E minor and
are forced in in the place of those of G and A.
len the harmony of C and A, which really re-
esents bar (/), is driven into the bar cor-
sponding with (</) ; and in order to make
e final chord of the cadence answer in position
th the original, all that a.ppears of the chord
[responding to bar (g) is the last quaver,
le following example will show the nature

the change, beginning at the half-bar cor-
iponding with (d) where the first half close falls,

to the first close in the principal key in
r (h) :-




rhis appears to be rather an extreme in-
nce, but in reality the change is caused
nothing more than the happy idea of turn-
f the passing note in bar (d) in an opposite
■action, and so leading to the intrusion of the
jrd of E ; thus causing the chords of G- and C,
lich follow in their proper order, to come one
p too late, and forcing the penultimate chord
the cadence intp very close quarters. But
i form of the cadence is preserved all the
ne, and so the change turns out to be more in
perficial appearance than reality; while the
'ularity of the succession is still sufficiently
nous to identify the theme.
The manner in which all the variations are
itten is contrapuntal, and in many cases they
; cast in some one or other of the old contra-
ntal forms. Every third variation through-
b, except the last, is a Canon of some sort,
th a free bass which generally follows the
tlines of the bass of the theme. These take
the intervals in regular order — a Canon at
i unison in the 3rd variation, a Canon at the
iond ia the 6th, and so on up to a Canon
the ninth in the 27th variation, the Canons
the fourth and fifth being complicated by
iking them in contrary motion. Variation 10
a complete Fughetta, and Variation i6 an
'erture after the French model, managed by
iking the part which represents the first half
the theme into the Maestoso movement, and
i latter part into the fugal one. The last varia-
n is a 'Quodlibet'; that is, a movement in
lich several bits of familiar tunes are worked
together. The tunes are ' Volkslieder ' of



a very bright and happy type. It begins with
one to the words ' Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir
g'west,' on the top of which another, 'Kraut
und Riiben haben mich vertrieben,' is intro-
duced ; and the fragments of the two, and
probably bits of others which are not identified,
are mixed up together in amusing but artistic
confusion throughout, always following the har-
monic succession of the original aria. After
the Quodlibet the theme is directed to be played
again, so as to make the cycle complete — a plan
followed by Beetlioven more than once, most
notably in the last movement of his Sonata in
E, op. 109. Every variation in the series has
a perfectly distinct character of its own, and is
knit together closely and compactly by the figures
used ; which vary from the most pointed vivacity
to the noblest dignity and calm ; and are so dis-
tributed as to keep the action always going, and
the interest alive at every step; the result of
this many-sided technical workmanship being a
perfectly mature art-form. In this respect, as in
many others, Bach seems to sum up in his own
lifetime the labours of several generations, and
to arrive at a point of artistic development which
the next generation fell far behind ; for a height
equal to that of his work was not again reached
till Beethoven's time. But the aspect of Bach's
work is peculiar to himself and his time. The
technical side is brought into extreme promin-
ence. This is shown most obviously in the
canons and fugues, but it is also shown in the
texture of the other variations. Some few are
extremely expressive and beautiful, but it was
not with the paramount object of making them
all so that Bach attacked his problem, for his
variations are rather developments of ideas em-
bodied in vigorous and regular rhythmic figures
than romantic or dramatic types. Both the
ideas and the way of treating them belong to
the old contrapuntal school, and that style of
variation-writing which is most richly and com-
prehensively shown in this series of variations,
comes to an end with Bach.

He produced several other sets in the same
manner, notably the famous Chaconne in the Suite
in D for violin solo ; but it is not necessary to
analyse that work, since the same principles are
observed throughout, even to the repetition of the
theme at the end to clench it all together. As
in the previous case, the basis of the variation is
the harmonic framework of the theme ; and the
melody hardly ever makes its reappearance till
its resumption at the end. The bass steps are
just as freely dealt with as in the previous case,
from which it may be gathered that Bach consi-
dered the harmonic structure the chief thing in
a Chaconne (which has the reputation of being a
movement on a ground-bass) as much as in a regu-
lar Theme and variations. He also produced
an example of a difierent kind, in a little set
of eight variations on a very beautiful and melo-
dious theme in A minor. In this the harmonic
framework is not nearly so noticeable, and the
variations are not made to depend upon it so
much as in the other cases. Some few of then^



222



VAEIATIONS.



are constructed on the same principles as tlie
(great set of thirty, but more often the melody
of the theme plays an uninistakeable part. This
may be seen from a comparison of the melody of
the 3rd, 4tli, and 5th bars of the theme, with
the same portion of the third variation.



Theme-




The influence of the tune is similarly apparent
in several other variations, putting a new com-
plexion upon variation-making, in the direction
cultivated by the next generation ; but the result
is neither so vigorous nor so intrinsically valuable
as in other works more after Bach's usual
manner, though historically interesting as an
experiment in a line which Bach generally
thought fit to let alone.

Handel's way of treating variations was very
different from Bach's, and more like the methods
of the Italian school, as illustrated by Corelli.
In most cases, indeed, he regarded the matter
from the same point of view as Bach, since he
looked upon the harmonic framework as the
principal thing to follow ; but he reduced the
interest of his representation of that frame-
work in new figures to a minimum. Where
Bach used ingenious and rhythmical figures,
and worked them with fascinating clearness and
consistency, Handel was content to use mere
empty arpeggios in different forms. In many of
his sets of Variations, and other works of the
same kind, he makes the effect depend chiefly
upon the way in which the quickness of the notes
varies, getting faster and faster up to the bril-
liant but empty conclusion. The set which has
most musical interest is the * Harmonious Black-
,smith' in the Suite in E ; and in this the usual
characteristic is shown, since the variations begin
with semiquavers, go on to triplet semiquavers,
and end with scale passages of demisemiquavers.
The extraordinary popularity of the work is
probably owing chiefly to the beauty of the
theme, partly also to the happy way in which the
style of the variations hits the mean between the
elaborate artistic interest of such works as
Bach's and the emptiness of simple arpeggios,
and partly to the fact that their very simplicity
shows to advantage the piinciples upon which a
.succession of variations can be knit together into
an effective piece, by giving all the members of
the series some relative bearing upon each other.
In this set the connection and function of each
^13 so thoroughly obvious that the most ordinary



VARIATIONS.

musical intelligence can grasp it, and it is to
such grounds of effect that Handel trusted in
making all his sets, whether in such an example
as the Passacaglia in the G minor Suite or the
Chaconne with sixty variations. Only in very
few cases does he even appear to attempt tc
make the separate numbers of the series interest
ing or musically characteristic, and yet the serief
as a whole is almost always effective. He is
more inclined to allow the tune of his theme t<
serve as a basis of effect than Bach was. In th«
variations in the Suite in D it is very promt
nent, and in the earlier variations of the ' Har
monious Blacksmith ' is clearly suggested ; an(
in this way he illusti-ates the earlier stage of th(
tendency which came to predominate in thi
next generation. The following are types of th»
figures used by Handel in more than one set : —




Ex. IG.



^



S



Another composer showed this tendency t
follow the tune even more markedly. This W8
llameau, who was born two years before Hand(
and Bach, but was brought more strongly unde
the rising influences of the early Sonata perioc
through his connection with the French operati
school, and the French instrumental school, <
which Couperin was the happiest represen
ative. These French composers were almoi
the first of any ability in Europe to give the
attention unreservedly to tunes, and to make tun
and character of a tuneful kind, the object
their ambition. Kameau produced a number ■
charming tuneful pieces of a harmonic cast, ari
naturally treated variations also from the poii
of view of tune, studying to bring the tune fo
ward, and to make it, rather than the harmon
successions, the basis of his variations. Wht
operatic influences came into play and infl
enced the instrumental music of German cod
posers, and when the traditions of the Protestai
school gave place to those of the southern ar
Catholic Germans, the same result followed.

Other circumstances also affected the for
unfavourably. The cause of the falling off :
vigour, deptfi of feeling, and technical resoun
from the standard of Handel and Bach, is obvio'
enough in other departments ; since men we
thrown back as they had been after Palestrina
time, through having to cope with new forn
of art. In the case of variations — by this tin
an old and established form — the cause of su<
falling off is not easy to see ; but in reality vari
tions were just as amenable to unfavoural
influences as the rest of instrumental musi



VARIATIONS.



VARIATIONS.



223



nee composers began to try to treat tliem in
le same style as their sonata movements,
hey dropped the contrapuntal methods, with
le opportunities afforded by them, and as they
a,d not yet developed the art of expressing
fective musical ideas in the modern style
Dart from the regular sonata form, their works
' the kind seem, by the side of Bach's, to be
idly lacking in interest. Moreover, the object
! writing them was changing. Bach wrote up
• the level of his own ideas of art, without
linking what would please the ordinary public ;
Lit the composers of the middle of the iSth
intury wrote their clavier music chiefly for the
se or pleasure of average amateurs, on whom
rst-rate art would be thrown away ; and aimed
; nothing more than respectable workmanship
id easy agreeable tunefulness. The public
ere losing their interest in the rich counter-
aint and massive nobility of style of the older
;hool, and were setting their affections more
id more on tune and simply intelligible form ;
id composers were easily led in the same
irection. The consequences were happy enough
I the end, but in the earlier stages of the new
yle variation-making appears to have suffered ;
id it only regained its position in rare cases,
hen composers of excejjtional genius returned,
I spite of the tendency of their time, to the
ethod of building a fair proportion of their
iriations on the old principles, and found in
le harmonic framework equal opportunities to
lose afforded by the tunes.
How strongly Haydn and Mozart were drawn
I the prevailing direction is shown by the
amber of cases in which they took simple and
jpular tunes as themes, and by the preponder-
ice of the melodic element in their variations,
his is even more noticeable in Mozart than in



Online LibraryGeorge GroveA dictionary of music and musicians (A.D. 1450-1889) by eminent writers, English and foreign : with illustrations and woodcuts (Volume 4) → online text (page 51 of 194)