It might be one of the oldest ideas in all of music (of any kind!), but, how did it develop in our Western classical music tradition? John and Evan explore what makes a theme and variations, 4 specific types to listen for, and a modern example using a theme you wouldn't expect!

Show Notes

An early example from JS Bach, his Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 

Reitze Smits, organist

Mozart's "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" variations, see how many different variation types you can hear!

Clara Haskil, piano

A great way to understand modern theme and variations!

In this video, a reduced score follows the music with the ever-evolving theme highlighted in red. 



John Banter: Produced by WETA Classical in Washington DC. Listener contributions are what make classical breakdown and WETA classical available today. In the break, Evan and I share with you how public radio has touched our lives and how you can help ensure the future of classical music on the radio by making a contribution today at weta. org/ classical breakdown. I'm John Banter and this is classical breakdown.

From WETA Classical in Washington. We are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classicals Evan Keeley, and we're exploring the big world of theme and variations. This is a subject that's easy but also complicated, but don't worry. We show you four specific types of theme and variations and what to listen for as we explore five centuries of music. Plus, stay with us to the end to hear about some unexpected variations on a theme like the back of your hand.

Theme and variations really seem like naturally maybe one of the earliest forms of music because all it is at its root, after all, is a melody, a theme, and then changing something about it instead of repeating it exactly the same. I think the idea itself existed before, and of course transcends, our own western classical music traditions. And in modern practice theme and variations, I think they're a great vehicle for virtuosity. Each variation can be like a juggler adding another knife or a chainsaw into the mix makes it more exciting, even maybe musically dangerous.

But yet, as we know with things in music that seem rather simple, things can get quite complex. I think the Webster's dictionary definition of variation is like two lines or something, but the Harvard Music Dictionary definition for variation is over four pages long and it spans four centuries, Evan.


Evan: Right, John. And one of the things that's fascinating about this topic is what exactly constitutes a variation is itself not always clear. And this is certainly not going to be a comprehensive view of everything, which could possibly be under the category of theme and variations, but I think we can cover some of the basic principles that one very often encounters.


John Banter: So let's look to where this begins for us. What might be an early example of theme and variations that we would recognize in our tradition?

Looking at the 16th century, it takes hold theme and variations that is in Italy and in Spain, evolving first from the humble dance, I think. A musician in this time period, the Renaissance, the 1500s, they're very well versed in dances either as a folk musician or also for royalty of course. But dance tunes while catchy and fun, they tend to be short, so you repeat them because otherwise, your dance is like 10 seconds long. So this naturally came about having variations with each repetition. So we have this dance, passamezzo, we can listen to for an early example of this and hear how with each repetition there is something different.

I personally love this kind of music too, Evan, and it just sounds very flowery, very evolving, sounds very natural as it does a little variation with each repetition.


Evan: And if it's a dance, if people are dancing to this music, it also has a kind of drive to it to hear something that's familiar and yet different. It kind of keeps the energy moving.


John Banter: And beyond dance music, we can look at an early example of theme and variations by Luys de Narváez. This is also from some time in the 16th century. This work is called Differentiates or as you can imagine, differences. And you can hear one of the most obvious variation tools changing the rhythm around a bit by adding more notes.


Evan: Luys de Narváez, a Spanish composer lived in the first half of the 16th century, was a vihuela player. Vihuela is a member of the guitar family and this work that he published in 1528 is the earliest printed theme in variations in European music.


John Banter: And the themes tend to be, as we've heard so far, very simple, very short, what we would describe as an eight bar phrase. Another way to describe that is think of a poem and think of just a couplet, a very simple couplet as opposed to something four stanzas or multiple pages long.

So after hearing some of these early examples, we can start to look at how this evolved and developed in the 18th century. And we can start placing variations into different categories too. And we're going to look at four now, specifically, and Evan, it's hard to not start with Bach and his Passacaglia in C minor that he completed in 1722.


Evan: A lot of pieces by Bach can fit in the theme and variations genre. But this one is one of the most memorable and to me, one of the most exciting. And you have, in this case, this is a ground base variation.

Ground base is as the name suggests, a baseline and the baseline is the theme. Passacaglia and chaconne, by the way, are terms that are often used interchangeably in the 18th century, but in this case, the Passacaglia in C minor of JS Bach as a repeating baseline, it's repeated almost exactly the same throughout the variations. And this makes the variations sound continuous. There's this baseline that starts the piece, repeats again and again. There's a kind of claustrophobic quality to this piece that makes it so thrilling and almost terrifying in the way the repetition is just this relentless power.


John Banter: What I love about that, when you're talking about it, Evan, how it sounds continuous, it really sounds like like a flower blooming again and again and again. And it's that baseline that repeats incessantly that gives us that whole feeling.

What if instead of having a baseline, being the theme and staying the exact same, what if the melody on the other hand stayed the exact same while the other parts, even the baseline even do the varying. That would be constant melody variation. And I want to take a second to say, if these terms just fly right out of your head the minute you finish this episode, these musical terms, that's not a problem at all. It's just listening and kind of understanding some of these ideas. You'll then be able to, well put them into practice as you are listening to them. So no worries about not remembering any of these terms. I've forgotten many of them.

So constant melody variation as it suggests, means the melody stays the same. It might go to a different instrument or something, but it's going to be intact. The theme that is, throughout the variations. Now, here's how that sounds. This is from the Slow Movement from Hayden's Opus 76, number 3, this is also the Emperor Hymn. We heard in the last episode. You'll hear the theme. And then when it comes to variation, a different instrument takes up the melody.

And so this is a long example, so I've had to shorten it a bit. You'll hear a bit of the theme and then you'll hear really how it comes back in for a variation and how it stays the same.

For some reason this also makes the theme, this constant melody variation, it makes the theme sound nostalgic to me somehow as if this would be something attune to what everyone would just really love and have some kind of sentiment towards. And maybe that's a reason of keeping it the same. I don't know, I just have that feeling with it.


Evan: It's almost tempting for me to read into it in ways that may or may not have been the composer's intention. This is this patriotic piece that Hayden wrote, and it seems like the sentiment is sort of enduring through all kinds of different changes that are happening in the world.

But whether or not that's what that actually means, that particular piece, there is a kind of, we have this idea of a constant melody, a constant harmony, and that constancy is what gives the piece a drive and a sense of familiarity with something different coming in that kind of keeps our interest and keeps the piece exciting.


John Banter: So we've had ground base variation, constant melody variation. What's another one, Evan?


Evan: Another type of variation would be the constant harmony variation, and as the name suggests, whereas with the others constant melody, you hear the same melody over and over again, A ground base variation, that's the base being repeated. Here's where the harmony is. A harmonic pattern is repeated over and over again. And this may be a little bit harder to notice if you're not a musician, although I think the human brain picks up on patterns pretty well.

It's hard to demonstrate. But one great example of this kind of constant harmony variation style is the famous so- called Goldberg Variations keyboard work by Johann Sebastian Bach. Some consider this to be the greatest set of variations ever composed, and depending on repeats and tempo and so forth, if you play the whole set of variations, the performance can be over an hour. This just this incredible musical journey.

There's so much going on, hard to explain it. John, we could do an entire season of classical breakdown-


John Banter: Definitely.


Evan: ... Just on the Bach Goldberg variations. So just to briefly say the theme that's the source of the variations is an aria. And we hear this beautiful melody in the right hand of the keyboard part, the upper part, and that's very charming and beguiling, but it's also a way Bach kind of tricks us because the theme that's going to be the source of the variations for this piece is actually in the base and it's the harmonic pattern, very sort of slow long chords that get repeated over and over again through all of the variations.


John Banter: This one is so interesting, but one, Bach's Goldberg Variations, yes, we can do an entire season on just just that alone. It feels like if you have a good guitar, maybe you're a guitar, maybe you write some songs writing 10, 15, 20, or even close to 30 songs here, but you're using the exact same chord progression for each one. I mean, this is also a basis of jazz, right? Playing over changes.


Evan: Absolutely. Jazz blues, there's a lot of, as you said at the beginning of the episode, John, there's many different musical styles that employ theme and variations techniques.


John Banter: A small subcategory of this one that I want to put on people's radar is this string quartet, Opus two, number 6, by Haydn. And what I'm talking about is a subcategory called constant bass where the cellist tier is playing the same baseline over and over and over again, but it's not the theme like a passacaglia this is just the accompanying baseline, but it's the exact same for all the variations that are occurring over top. And I think this is also a way composers could sort of look back to the earlier periods of a ground base variation without actually having to do it.

The fourth basic way to do variations is with melodic outline variation. This is when you keep the surrounding harmony basically the same, but you're embellishing, you're ornamenting, and you're playing with the melody. And this is probably the most familiar- sounding variation idea. I think to listeners today. The best, the easiest example of this is a set of variations by Mozart on a tune we know today as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or maybe The Alphabet Song. But to Mozart, it was the French folk tune, (foreign language) if I'm even saying that close to correct.

But as we listen to it now in the background, we hear that familiar tune as simple as it can be, Mozart adds in two repeats because well, he wants to lengthen a little bit. Remember, you can't just have a dance that's 10 seconds long as we said earlier.

But in the first variation, we hear clearly what Mozart's doing. He's embellishing the outline of the melody.

This is so familiar, I think for all of us listening. But a similar one is also varying the rhythm drastically, going to a different time signature, adding syncopation, something that Mozart does in variation number 5.

And we're going to put a place to listen to this work on the show notes page because you'll hear how Mozart combines several of the other ideas we just talked about, right, Evan, because this isn't just, you choose one type of variation and then that's it. But as time goes on, composers are combining different ones.


Evan: And bear in mind too, this very famous piece by Mozart, one of the things that's famous about it is he wrote it when he was very, very young. So it's fascinating to think about how even at such a young age, not only did he have this incredible wunderkind talent as we all know, but that he was able to grasp this concept, this basic fundamental concept of music in such a sophisticated and imaginative way. And you can see how that paves the way for the strides that his genius will take through the course of his life.


John Banter: So we've just talked about four different categories of variation here. The ground base variation, the base is the theme and repeats always. The constant melody variation where the melody is staying the same throughout all the variations may be going to a different instrument, but it's always intact. The constant harmony variation where the harmony stays the same through everything. Then the melodic outline variation where it's playing with the outline of the harmony. And as we hear, there's so many things that can just happen from just these simple ideas.

And like we said, we can't go over all of the major examples, but as time moves on, we see this idea not just being for solo instruments like the keyboard or maybe a smaller ensemble like a quartet, but even appearing within symphonies. Hayden's Symphony number 94, Surprise, that surprise slow movement itself is a set of theme and variations. So we see it appearing in symphonies, but as a movement, not as an entire standalone work yet.

But what happens after 1800 after Handel, Bach, Mozart and Haydn have left their mark on theme and variations. We'll get into that right after this.

So we wanted to take a second here to share with you how public radio has shaped and touched our lives and how you can ensure this podcast and WETA Classical remain strong.

Classical music on the radio played a big part in my music education growing up, and specifically my love for opera, which all also led me to one of my most gratifying musical experiences in my career so far.

In high school, my first job was delivering flowers. So on Saturdays, I would get into this old van at the florist, and I would drive around, and this is like 2003, 2004. So there's no music streaming on your phone. I just had the radio to listen to while I drove around delivering these flowers.

So I would listen to the local public radio station, and there was a show on cars, and then the Met Opera broadcast would come on, and I just left it on and it really opened a whole new world to me because I was in the high school band, but the nearest orchestra was over an hour away. I hadn't really heard any opera before. I thought I wasn't interested. It was just never presented to me.

But I really fell in love and depended on those opera broadcasts on the local public radio station, and not just to make those delivery shifts go by faster. This led me to seeking out more opera, which led me to studying opera in multiple classes at conservatory. And then in 2010, I was part of the premiere of Raskatov's Opera, A Dog's Heart with the Dutch National Opera, which remains one of my most memorable experiences in music.

Now, just as in conversation, listening is a critical quality to have when working in music. And those hours spent listening and picking apart the Met Opera music in my head each Saturday as I drove around, really helped me prepare, actually not just for music, but in so many areas of my life, all because of classical music on the radio.

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Now, for you, Evan, how has public radio shaped or touched your life?


Evan: Well, it's funny that you were talking about driving because one of the ways in which public radio has been a part of my life. When I first moved to the DC area over a dozen years ago now, I brought an old car with me, which when I got to this area, didn't pass inspection, and I happened to have the radio on, and it was WETA classical, and I heard the promo saying, you can donate your car to WETA Classical. And I thought, whoa, what a good way to get rid of this car and support public radio at the same time.

I've been an avid listener to WETA Classical all that time, a huge fan of your front row Washington, John, and I also love Coral Showcase, WETA VivaLaVoce, the station that sings. And of course, like you, I love hearing the MET broadcast and opera matinee every Saturday afternoon at one. And National Public Radios, From the Top is just an amazing show. I can hardly imagine life without these things, and I've never had to imagine life without these things. Thanks to the contributions of our wonderful listeners and supporters.

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John Banter: That's right, it is with the financial support of listeners that WETA Classical and Classical Breakdown are available today, and you can donate online at weta. org/ classical- breakdown to secure the future of both. That's weta. org/ classical- breakdown. Okay, now let's get back to theme and variations.


Evan: Well, John, we've had a fascinating look at theme and variations up to the end of the 18th century. And we had a brief look at some of the greatest composers in Europe playing around with these different techniques of theme and variations, Bach and Handel, and Haydn and Mozart.

So we get to the beginning of the 19th century, and as with so many things in European music at that time, the rules start to change old structures and forms start to break down. And of course, we can't talk about that without talking about Beethoven who was such a master at so many things. But one of the things, Beethoven was truly a genius at, in my view, and others feel the same, is theme and variations. He was really one of the greatest contributors to that, the development of that genre. And one of the ways in which he did this was in a late work of his, the Diabelli variations.

He wrote this in 1823, along with the Goldberg variations of Johann Sebastian Bach that we talked about earlier. These are considered to be among the greatest sets of variations ever composed.

Now, one of the things that's fascinating about this piece is you listen to the theme, and we're not looking at a little eight bar theme or a little short melody like we were with some of the other examples we talked about. This is a 32 bar waltz, and what's even worse about it is that there's really no discernible melody. Beethoven may or may not have referred to this piece as a cobbler's patch. We're not sure if he really said that.

It is a kind of almost a silly little ditty. And yet Beethoven takes this and uses it as a vehicle to combine different concepts and different ideas about variations. But even in the first variation pushes back on what we've heard so far. Instead of a variation that just steps in a different direction, Beethoven drops the waltz idea altogether. Three, four becomes this two four march. So what kind of variation is this? If the melody is almost absent and he's changing so much?


John Banter: Well, this would be a formal outline. This is when aspects of the theme's form and phrase structure remain constant. But this is now a general guideline, as you said, rules, regulations, things start to really break down. Things here can musically expand or contract. It's not so fixed. And we see this here with the Diabelli variations, and it's happening mainly in the 19th century. And Beethoven really, I think, reinvigorates theme in variations the form that is, as he did with the symphony and other things as well.


Evan: And he certainly rose to the challenge, didn't he, John, that we could, again, we could do a whole season of classical breakdown episodes on the Diabelli variations of Beethoven.

Anton Diabelli was a composer and publisher. He sent this little waltz to 33 composers and invited each of them to write one variation on it, and then he was going to publish them as a set.

Well, Beethoven took a look at this and he said, I'm going to write 33 variations of my own on it. And he created this incredible set of variations. Remember that the Ode To Joy, the famous finale of his ninth symphony is also a theme in variations. Beethoven really moved the whole idea of theme in variations to a completely new realm.


John Banter: And as he's pushed this forward, we're getting closer now to the middle of the 19th century. We see theme and variations grow into standalone orchestral works, not a movement of a symphony or part of something else, but rather its own thing, like the famous variations on a theme by Haydn composed by Johannes Brahms in 1873, or the Symphonic Variations by Dvořák in 1877.

And we did do an episode on the Brahms Haydn Variations number 77, which has some really interesting things about it to his own kind of rule breaking there. But we see a lot of these rules break down. And with that, this formal outline comes into existence and also the fantasy variation category.

Now we're talking about two things here that are more abstract, obviously, than what we've done before. The definitions or guidelines for these are rather simple. Formal aspects of the themes form and phrase are remaining constant and fantasy variation, I think, we're going even further. The variations are merely alluding to the constructive elements, especially with the melody. And we get works fitting into this category. Maybe you shoved into the category like Strauss's Don Quixote, which, it becomes hard to really demonstrate because Strauss blows past so many of the identifiable characteristics.

This is similar to formal outline, I think. The connections are kind of tenuous, but you can't have formal without fantasy or fantasy without formal. I think it's one of those things you just kind of know where it has this more fantastical element to it. Another example that might actually be better would be Edward Elgar's, Enigma Variations. It's a fantasy variation, but the variations start and stop. So it's a little bit more compartmentalized that way.


Evan: And that's one of the delightful puzzles of music. The Enigma Variations of Elgar is indeed mystery. We don't know what the theme is. He never revealed what the puzzle's solution is. It's one of his best known and best loved works. It's a masterpiece of imaginative variance, and yet we don't know what it is that's being varied.


John Banter: Yes, and just for me, on a personal note, it's one of the pieces I have a deep personal connection to, and do I even understand it? I wouldn't even say I do. And that's the thing with these categories, formal or fantasy. Don't play for me some random set of theme and variations and ask me to differentiate between these two categories, unless it's that Strauss or the Elgar we just mentioned.


Evan: It's good to mention too, how in the 19th century the form developed and various composers that contributed to it. Robert Schumann is a particularly important composer in the development of the fantasy variations theme.

You look at composers like Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt who are exploring the transformation of themes. And this even becomes really kind of stretching the whole concept here. But you look at the light motif system that Wagner used in his operas, and that can be a kind of theme in variations too, isn't it, John? Where you have these melodic ideas or these harmonic phrases that recur in very different ways through the course of a long work, and they keep coming back to represent a different kind of a concept or a character. So that's, to me, that's another way of looking at theme and variations as it's developing through the 19th century.


John Banter: Yes, especially Wagner ahead of his time with those light motif ideas, which we still see today. Of course, you think of Star Wars and how those themes come back in and out of the movies.

So as you might guess going into the 20th century, things break down even further. I mean, we have terms that we've heard for centuries like concerto or symphony. And in the 20th century, they become almost unrecognizable as such compared to a century earlier. And some of the standard old forms, we see less of them being composed in the 20th century. But Amy Beach did write a set of theme and variations for flute and string quartet in 1916. And Evan, we hear in this one how she's mixing all kinds of concepts and just a striking thing to me as we think flute and string quartet. Okay, this is really soloistic for the flute. The flute doesn't even play the theme. The whole thing is introduced without the flute. The flute introduces itself in variation 1. So very interesting as she takes her own liberties with variations, I guess I would call those, if I had to guess formal variations.


Evan: And of course, John, we can't talk about 20th century variations without at least briefly mentioning one of the most famous sets from that period, the Paganini variations of segregated Rachmaninoff. And episode 69 of Classical Breakdown was a really interesting conversation that you had with WETA Classicals Bill Bukowski about this piece. So I would encourage our listeners to take another listen to that one.

I just want to mention very briefly, one of the many things I love about that piece is the way that Rachmaninoff structures it. Variation 1 is the first thing we hear, and then you hear the theme and then the rest of the variations. And there's something about that. It's pretty simple, but it's just a marvelous way of bringing us into this incredible journey.


John Banter: Yes, thanks for reminding us of that episode, Evan, because I remember now as you're describing it, there are a couple of little variations that do some clever things that I think everyone can listen. So we'll check that episode out, number 69 and an even more modern example for orchestra is the Symphony for Strings by Polish composer, Grazyna Bacewicz from 1946. She writes a set of theme and variations for the symphonies finale. And in this one, you can hear, while her sound is very modern, she is using multiple variation ideas like we've discussed, and she includes one of the oldest ones, which is to just use subdivision, just adding more notes in subdividing the theme, just like Luis de Narváez did over 400 years earlier. So it's a lot of looking back and looking forward for these composers, easily for Bacewicz, who also will really like the music of Bach and older music.

But when it comes to contemporary variations, Evan, which can sound so foreign and really esoteric, hard to understand, myself included in that. This example here is one everyone should listen to if they are interested in variations post 1900, it is the Variations on Happy Birthday by John Williams composed in 1995. The reason I think this is so key is because Happy Birthday has been permanently implanted into our brains, I think. So that means throughout all of the interesting wild stuff that's happening with these modern variations, any changes are partial inclusions of that theme. They're very recognizable, almost innately when they pop out, when you jump out of your seat. Oh, was that part of that or that was that part of that?

You just start picking up on so many aspects that you just wouldn't otherwise with a very complicated atonal theme, for instance.


Evan: And the theme in variations idea, which as we were saying at the beginning of the episode, John, is such a universal experience. I think because the human brain craves both familiarity and novelty and theme in variations provides both. It's a paradox in which we're saying the same thing over and over again, but differently, and that's just a vehicle for some of the greatest creative expressions in music that we've ever encountered.


John Banter: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your Guide to classical music. If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment now to make a pledge of support at weta. org/ classical- breakdown. Every donation has an impact, and right now, if you make a sustaining gift of $ 6 a month or an annual gift of $ 72, we'll say thank you with a WETA Classical mug. Contribute online now by going to weta. org/ classical- breakdown. I'm John Banter. Thank you so much for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.