Classical Music’s Tradition of “Theme and Variations”

Marc David Broidy is a Southern California financial professional who seeks out investment opportunities spanning a range of asset classes. With a passion for the arts, Marc Broidy is an opera enthusiast who enjoys the classical music tradition.

An April 2021 article in the Boston Music Intelligencer took up the topic of “theme and variations” and the works of great composers. As a compositional tool, the concept of repeating motifs that change over the course of an extended work emerged in the ‘diferencias’ of Spanish lutenists in the 1500s. This was soon adopted by composers in the Baroque tradition and continued through to the Classical era.

A basic example of “theme and variations” is in works such as Chopin’s Op. 2 and Mozart’s Sonatas, K. 284 and 331, in which ornamentation and division is used to extend the listener’s interest across a specific melody. In Bizet’s l’Arlesienne Suite no. 1 and Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet, the theme is relatively constant, and the instruments accompanying change across the variations.

Beethoven was a pioneer in expanding the possibilities of variations on themes, as he developed a “constant-harmony variation” technique. Building on the work of Haydn and Mozart, he disassembled and recombined the core melody in ways that were often not recognizable on a conscious level. One example is Six Variations, op. 34, on an original theme, which starts in the key of F major and then shifts to variations in several keys, from B-flat major to C minor, before returning to the original key for the extended coda.

Often working on multiple projects at the same time, Beethoven’s variations extend between distinct works as well. As an example, the well known theme of the “Eroica” symphony was first explored years earlier as the Twelve Contradanses’ no.7 variation. It was also used within the finale of the ballet Die Geschopfe des Prometheus, op. 43. Identifying these variations of themes and how they are transmuted over a work, or series of works, is one of the listening pleasures of the classical music tradition.

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