Friday, February 20, 2009

Themes and Variations

This morning I was listening to the Schubert opus posthumous piano sonatas on the car stereo as I made my way along the 134 Freeway to work. I should mention, by the way, that I have only recently come to appreciate this drive, though I make it almost every day. But it takes me through the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, which can be quite lovely in the morning sun, glowing purple and russet, and sometimes I see deer grazing on the lower slopes just above the freeway. It is so unlike my morning commutes when I lived back East or in Paris or London, and I have decided never again to take it for granted.

So Schubert kept me company, and though I had heard the sonatas, published after his untimely death at the age of 31, many times, and had come to love them, I did not realize until this morning that one of the movements I enjoy the most is in the form of a theme and variations. (One of the curses of listening to music in the car is that I cannot look at the album cover or the liner notes, and so I cannot at this moment tell you which sonata it is.) The theme is quite austere, so simple in fact that it scarcely exists as a theme, just a few chords repeated and embellished, and laced together with a charming and moving melody. Schubert then explores the possibilities, both harmonic and intellectual, of this theme, which is, I think, the attraction that the form has held for so many great composers.

Now, last week I had been listening to Bach's Goldberg Variations, which is perhaps the greatest example of the theme and variation form. I had nearly forgotten how wonderful and beautiful it is, and I played it over and over. That, together with the Schubert this morning, and the second movement of the Beethoven piano sonata opus 111 (which is one of my favorite pieces of music) got me thinking about the theme-and-variation as an artistic genre, and how very differently those three composers had had used it.

First, as a general note, I think that the appeal of the theme and variation form is the opportunity it affords the composer to work with the possibilities and intricacies inherent in the motive idea. In this sense, it is a quintessentially artistic form, offering intellectual challenges as well as aesthetic ones. Certainly this is what Bach was doing in the Goldberg Variations – exploring the pure melodic and ideational implications of his beautiful and complex theme, and developing them to the highest level of virtuosity imaginable.

In the Goldberg Variations, Bach begins with a theme borrowed from the Anna Magdalena Notebook, which he assembled as an exercise for a student (who would become his second wife) in order to improve her keyboard skills. The theme, which is quite short though very complex, is, I think, one of the loveliest melodies ever written. Bach then develops and explores this musical idea through thirty variations of surpassing beauty, complexity and diversity. He then repeats the original theme which, since we have lived through every possible permutation and elaboration it suggests, now seems to us to be a completely different musical idea than when we first heard it. It is as though we were introduced to a lovely and intriguing person, then heard her life story with all of its shadings, colors, tragedy, comedy, meditations, heartaches and triumphs, and then met the same person again. Our appreciation for and understanding of her would be immensely broadened and deepened, and she would appear almost to be an entirely different being.

Schubert, in his theme and variations, begins with a more austere and understated theme and, while developing it through a series of variations, he returns to it periodically, restating it in the very process of exploring its possibilities. This creates a spiral effect, rather than the linear effect of the Goldberg Variations. It is a very interesting approach. Even as we are learning more about the idea and being opened to its implications both aesthetic and intellectual, we are continually reminded of its essential nature. The effect of this reminding is almost hypnotic. Whereas in Bach we leave the theme in its pure form behind and embark on a journey of discovery and creation, in Schubert we are continually recalled to the original idea, almost as a sort of reality check. Schubert seems to be saying 'Don't forget what we are dealing with here, don't get lost in the adventure, keep looking at the material from which I am creating and remember it as we move on.' Thus our appreciation for the depth and beauty of the idea grows and deepens alongside our exploration of it, rather like the photo album of our children which remains a reminder of their infancy as they grow up. Schubert then returns to the theme a final time, more in a gesture of satisfaction and completion than of revelation. The effect of the theme and variations in his hands is one of beauty and insight rather than, as in Bach, of sheer virtuoso brilliance and exposition.

Beethoven, as usual, takes an entirely different course. In the second movement of the Op. 111 sonata, he begins with a dense and powerful theme and then launches into a series of variations which explore not only the melodic and intellectual possibilities of the theme, but more importantly, which probe for and expose its spiritual implications as well. The variations rend and transform the theme to the point where it is almost unrecognizable (at least to my ear), and then they blossom into one of the most intense and sublime spiritual statements Beethoven ever made. (Only the last string quartets surpass this gesture in spiritual purity.) In the section which has been called ‘the divine trills’ Beethoven apotheosizes the theme to the point where it becomes other worldly and, indeed, in the end, it does seem to leave the Earth and ascend to heaven. The effect here is of a reaching upward to touch the divine spirit which animates man, and a leaving of life and the material realm, and even the world of ideas, behind.

Three different composers using the same form with three very different intentions and results. Bach was drawn to the form, I think, for the sheer artistic and intellectual challenge and joy which it presented, and in the process, produced one of the greatest artistic achievements of Western music. Schubert was drawn to the form, perhaps, as an opportunity to meditate and to deepen and heighten the sense of melodic beauty which lay at the heart of his sensibilities. But Beethoven, at a very late stage of his life, saw in the form, in its abstractness, in the purity of its artistic approach and the potential for intellectual complexity, an opportunity to enunciate that spiritual insight which was so absorbing and dominating his life and work. While Bach’s variations are formally perfect, and Schubert’s, aesthetically deep and beautiful, Beethoven’s are, characteristically, intense, driving, and transcendent. But all are great jewels in the artistic life of our civilization.