By Colin Kaye
Theme and Variations
It was 1817 when Niccolò Paganini
completed his Twenty-four Caprices for solo violin. Beethoven was
forty-seven and at the peak of his career, Schubert was twenty and the
seven-year-old Robert Schumann was just starting piano lessons. At the
time, the splendidly eccentric Paganini was one of the most celebrated
virtuoso violinists in Europe. He always dressed entirely in black for his
famous concerts and arrived in a black coach drawn by black horses. He
evidently practised fifteen hours every day and always played from memory –
a novelty at the time.
The final piece in the set – Caprice
No 24 - is a theme and variations and considered one of the most
challenging works ever written for solo violin. It requires the use of many
advanced techniques such as parallel octaves, rapid shifts and extremely
fast scales and arpeggios. There are many other extraordinarily difficult
passages, the sight of which would make many a student violinist pass out.
Paganini couldn’t possibly have known
that his opening theme from Caprice No 24 would later be borrowed by
dozens of other composers as the starting point for variations of their
own. Brahms used it in his Variations on a Theme of Paganini and
Rachmaninoff used it in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There
are well over fifty published works which use Paganini’s theme but no one
knows the number of unpublished pieces.
Why did Paganini’s melody prove so
irresistible to other composers? At first glance the tune seems hardly
worth writing home about. It has four bars which are repeated and then
eight more bars which are also repeated. The rhythm is identical in almost
every bar. Yet the tune has a kind of catchiness and it’s the kind of thing
that could jangle in your head all day given half a chance. Perhaps the
very simplicity made it attractive to composers and of course, the name
Paganini in the title of a work adds a touch of magic and gravitas.
Paganini was not the only composer
whose music was borrowed by others. Bach wrote variations on a theme by
Frederick the Great (The Musical Offering, since you asked); Brahms
wrote variations on a theme by Haydn; Shostakovich wrote variations on a
theme by Glinka; Britten wrote variations on a theme by Frank Bridge and
Walton wrote variations on a theme by Hindemith. And so the list goes on.
There must be hundreds of such works. Usually the main theme is played at
the start, followed by contrasting sections that vary some aspect of the
initial melody and transform it into something new. Each variation tends to
be increasingly elaborate.
Rachmaninoff (1873-1943): Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Matsuev (pno), State Symphony Orchestra of Russia cond. Leonard Slatkin
(Duration: 30:29; Video: 720p HD)
Rachmaninoff avoided the convention of
stating the main theme at the beginning and instead merely hints at it.
This is a piano concerto in all but name and consists of twenty-four
variations on Paganini’s theme. Rachmaninoff wrote it in 1934 and the same
year played the solo part at the premiere in Baltimore with the Philadelphia
Orchestra under Stokowski. The eighteenth variation, with its echoes of
Hollywood romantic movies is by far the best known. The composer must have
known that this variation would be popular for he’s reputed to have
remarked, “This one’s for my agent.”
The final variation is so technically
demanding that even Rachmaninoff expressed trepidation about playing it
correctly at the premiere. Before the concert, he broke his usual rule and
summoned up some Dutch courage with a glass of crème de menthe to
steady his nerves. It worked. The concert was a spectacular success, and
before every subsequent performance of the Rhapsody, Rachmaninoff
always drank a glass of crème de menthe.
(1861-1906): Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, Op. 35a.
Conservatorium of Music Chamber Orchestra (Duration: 10:06; Video: 480p)
The letter “a” after the opus number is
a clue that this work is an arrangement of something else. In this case,
the “something else” was Arensky’s Second String Quartet. The quartet was
written in 1894, the year after the death of Tchaikovsky, who had been a
significant influence over the younger composer. For the slow movement of
his quartet, Arensky borrowed a melody from one of Tchaikovsky’s songs and
as a tribute, composed variations on it. At the first performance, the slow
movement was so well received that Arensky later arranged it as a separate
piece for string orchestra.
When he was eighteen, Arensky moved to
St Petersburg with his parents so that he could study composition at the
Conservatory. For a time his teacher was Rimsky-Korsakov who didn’t have
especially high hopes for him. “He will quickly be forgotten” the great
composer tartly remarked. But he wasn’t. Tchaikovsky’s haunting theme is
transformed into a wealth of rich and powerful sonorities that reveal
Arensky’s composing skill and his unmistakable Russian heritage.
(Photo: Claudia Prieler)
At this time of year,
hardly a week goes by without reading in the newspaper that summer storms
are brewing in the central provinces and possibly heading south to the
Sunshine Province. Fortunately the storms don’t always appear or just seem
to fizzle out before they get here. I don’t blame the newspaper of course,
because it is after all, “the newspaper you can trust” but I’ve been told
that accurate weather forecasting is notoriously difficult even with the
sophisticated technology that we have at our disposal today. I can
appreciate that because even the movement of my dogs is almost impossible to
predict with any degree of accuracy.
Back in the old days
when I was a spotty teenager living on a cold grey island off the coast of
Europe, it was winter storms we had to worry about. They could be fierce
things too, when howling winds would come thundering down the Irish Sea and
churn the waters into raging waves. It’s easy to understand how the
ancients felt that some angry gods were at work.
The idea of imitating
the sound of a storm in music goes back a good many years, but it wasn’t
until the nineteenth century, when larger orchestras began to develop - that
more and more composers started emulating the sounds of nature in their
The Romantic Movement,
which began to emerge during the middle years of the nineteenth century, was
sufficient encouragement for composers, along with painters and writers to
turn to nature for their ideas. The English painter Joseph Turner was one
such person and was years ahead of his time. During his lifetime he was
considered somewhat controversial, but his contribution to Romantic painting
(especially his stormy seascapes) was enormous.
German Romanticism developed comparatively late though even in his
Pastoral Symphony of 1808 Beethoven evoked the sounds of a thunderstorm,
albeit a fairly tame one. Berlioz did much the same thing in his opera
The Trojans. Both Tchaikovsky and Sibelius wrote stormy overtures
entitled The Tempest derived from Shakespeare’s play of the same
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976): Four Sea Interludes Op 33a. BBC
Symphony Orchestra cond. Sakari Oramo
(Duration: 16:35, Video: 720p HD)
If Britten had followed
in his father’s footsteps, he would have become a dentist. Fortunately he
turned to music instead, becoming a central figure of twentieth-century
British classical music. He was born in the fishing port of Lowestoft in
Suffolk and remained close to the sea all his life. His first opera
Peter Grimes dates from 1945 and tells the story of a mean, violent
fisherman who is ostracized by the residents of the fishing town in which he
lives. The opera is a social tragedy peopled with several unsavory
characters but the powerful music (indeed, a great deal of Britten’s music)
seems to evoke the bleak seas and skies of the eastern coast of England.
The Four Sea
Interludes come from the orchestral sections in the opera and oddly
enough, they have become more popular than the opera itself. From the
opening moments, you can sense the cold North Sea in the early hours of the
morning. But even during the haunting flute melodies, there’s a brooding,
uncomfortable sense of foreboding. The sea dominates the music but you’ll
have to wait until the last movement (at 12:09) for the storm. And what a
storm it is! It’s a ferocious tempest with endless explosions of thunder, a
crashing sea and a fearsome wind shrieking through the ship’s rigging.
Thomas Adès (b. 1971): Overture
Chamber Orchestra of Europe cond. Thomas Adès (Duration: 04:48, Video: 480p)
If Britten’s storm in
Peter Grimes is a Force 9 gale, this one is a Force 12 hurricane.
Thomas Adès (AH-dess) was born in London and has a formidable list of
works to his credit including two operas. In 1992 he was appointed Britten
Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. The overture is
from his opera The Tempest based on the eponymous Shakespeare play
and in it, Adès creates a storm of Biblical proportions. Compared to this
mind-shattering tempest, the thunder-storm that appears in Beethoven’s
Pastoral Symphony sounds more like a summer shower. Adès pushes
dissonance pretty well to the limits in this exciting work but brings it to
a satisfying and peaceful conclusion.
It’s interesting to
read a few of the less than complimentary comments on the YouTube page added
by visitors. Some of them indicate a typical reaction to something which is
new and possibly difficult to initially understand. The remarks remind me
of the kind of ignorant verbal abuse Beethoven had to suffer in his day from
some music critics who found his music “incoherent, shrill, chaotic and
ear-splitting”. The music critic and writer, August von Kotzebue (who wrote
that silly description) would have been very cross about the music of Thomas
Adès. Very cross indeed.
On the tracks
I wonder whether you
recall that self-righteous little poem by Frances Cornford entitled, rather
insensitively, To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train. My mother was fond
of quoting the lines, “O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?”
Frances Cornford (née
Darwin) was a female poet of modest achievement whose father, the botanist
Sir Francis Darwin was a son of the more famous Charles. Her husband
somewhat confusingly, was also named Francis. Anyway, the verse came to
mind the other day, when I was ruminating on my first train journey to
Chiang Mai in the 1980s. There’s something evocative and emotive about
trains and few other forms of travel heighten the temporal nature of the
things around us. If the train goes slowly enough, which the one to Chiang
Mai certainly used to do, you can gaze at the locals going about their daily
work, unaware of your attention. Then they pass from view and you realise
that your paths in life will never run so close again. It brings about a
kind of melancholy, fleeting sense of loss.
The French of course,
are proud of their super-fast TGV trains which in terms of sheer speed
rather leave the Chiang Mai Express in the shade. Michael Nyman even wrote
a piece of music about them in 1993 to celebrate the inauguration of the
Paris-Lille TGV run.
The Swiss composer
Arthur Honegger adored trains and once said, “I have always loved
locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them
as others love women or horses.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds a
bit creepy to me. Honegger wrote a massive amount of music including three
concertos, five symphonies and nearly twenty ballets, he’s perhaps
best-known these days for his music about a train, or to be more exact, a
Arthur Honegger (1892-1955): Pacific 231.
L’Orchestra Symphonique La Folla de Lille, cond. François Clercx (Duration:
09:11; Video: 480p)
The Pacific was an
American steam locomotive and as any train enthusiast will be delighted to
explain, locomotives are classed by their wheel arrangement. In Britain and
America, the Pacific would be designated as a 4-6-2, meaning that it has
four pilot wheels, six driving wheels, and two trailing wheels. The French
of course, have to be different and count the axles rather than the wheels,
hence the numbers 2-3-1.
Honegger wrote the
piece as an exercise in building momentum and originally called it rather
prosaically Mouvement Symphonique, giving it the name Pacific 231
only after it was finished. Written in 1923, it must have taken
audiences aback with its jarring harmonies, angular melodic fragments and
abrasive percussion. This video is virtually a re-make of Jean Mitry’s
French 1949 classic movie, which used Honegger’s music as the sound-track.
If you are old enough,
you might recall the British film Night Mail, a 1936 documentary
about the mail train from London to Scotland. W. H. Auden wrote a poem for
it (the film I mean, not the train) and Benjamin Britten wrote some music.
It featured a locomotive known as the Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman (a
4-6-0 since you asked). And here’s an interesting connection; the film’s
sound director hailed from Brazil - as does one of the best-loved pieces of
train music. But it’s a very different train to Honegger’s snarling
Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959): The Little Train of the Caipira.
National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain, cond. Natalia Luis-Bassa
(Duration: 5:25; Video: 720p HD)
considered the best-known South American composer of all time. Rarely seen
without his trade-mark cigar, he composed a staggering amount of music
including twelve symphonies and seventeen string quartets. Between 1930 and
1945, Villa-Lobos wrote Bachianas Brasileiras, a series of nine
suites for various combinations of instruments and voices, which blended
features of the European Baroque with folk melodies of Brazil. This
charming little railway piece comes from the second suite and the title
refers to the local trains of the Brazilian countryside.
Several other classical
works have been inspired by trains. Charles-Valentin Alkan wrote a
fiendishly difficult piano piece called Le Chemin de Fer. It was
written in 1844, only sixteen years after the appearance of Stephenson’s
Rocket, perhaps a slightly optimistic name for a locomotive whose
maximum speed was a stately 28 mph. The Danish composer Hans Christian
Lumbye wrote a jolly romp called Copenhagen Steam Railway Galop and
in total contrast, there’s the strangely haunting Different Trains,
by Steve Reich scored for string quartet and electronic sounds.
And by the way, the
poet G. K. Chesterton, who coincidentally was married to someone called
Frances, wrote an amusing rebuke to Frances Cornford. It was a short poem
called The Fat Lady Answers. But I shall leave you to seek it out
for yourself, if these things interest you.