Variations on a Theme of Brahms


Subito Music Corp
Prem: 2/6/98; Manhattan Philharmonia
"An intense, contemporary work ... musical puzzles; a collage of deconstructed and rearranged melodies and motives." -The Wichita Eagle

My variations are based on the theme of the Andante movement of the Brahms String Sextet number one in B-flat major, Op. 18. They consist of twelve variations and a coda. The theme itself is divided into two sections, each of which is repeated. I took the theme’s chromatically descending bass line as a first motive, out of which I constructed a twelve-tone row, and the theme’s ascending melodic line as a second motive. The twelve variations are divided into two sections: the first six of which consist of variations on the first motive, and the last five of which begin with a passacaglia bass line based on the second motive. Over this bass line, presented by itself in variation eight, the first three variations are contrapuntally added in reverse order, so that variation nine adds variation three; variation ten adds variation two to three and variation eleven adds variations one to the combined variations two and three, so that they are all sounding simultaneously. The seventh variation, called “celestial navigation,” is a distillation of the entire piece and forms the dividing line between sections one and two.

There are two fugues, the first in variation four which is based on a third motive, that of Brahms’ melodic theme. The final double fugue in variation twelve combines both the first and third motives and the coda uses both of these motives and adds the second motive as the ascending bass line. The entire twelve variations are organized so that each variation begins on successive pitches of the original row.

I wanted to explore this intellectually rigorous formal structure, most of which grew out of the musical material itself, because Brahms was fascinated with the intricate contrapuntal designs of the Baroque and Renaissance masters, and incorporated much of their art into his own music. He stands as the culmination of what came before him, adding to it his own personal contribution, and I felt inspired by his example.

The variations were begun at Brahmshaus in Baden-Baden, where I spent the fruitful summer of 1996 on a grant from the Brahmshausgesellschaft, absorbing the music and the spirit of the master.

Posted: Sep-28-2013
Back to List
Back to Top