Yesterday, I gave the example of Mozart’s variations on the French tune Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (K. 265) as a way to ease into listening for patterns in music. Everyone knows the tune: it is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Baa Baa Black Sheep and The Alphabet Song. Mozart plays the melody (the Theme) and then gradually soups it up more and more. It’s still recognizable, yet different.
So what did he actually do? I’m going to put the video here again, and below is an explanation so you can follow along.
First he plays (states) the Theme, nothing fancy or devious here. The tune is in ordinary quarter notes. And it’s in the simplest key of all, C major, all white notes on the piano.
Variation 1: He keeps the melody in the right hand, but decorates it using faster sixteenth notes. The left hand remains pretty much the same as in the theme.
Variation 2: The melody stays in the right hand, but now the left hand gets fancy with faster sixteenth notes.
Variation 3: The melody is in the right hand, but this time Mozart uses a series of triplets to decorate the melody. Left hand goes back to its original note lengths (no longer sixteenths as in Variation 2).
Variation 4: Keeping the melody in the right hand, he goes back to a simple exposition. Now the triplets are in the left hand.
Got it so far? He does something different in the right hand, then does it again in the left hand in the next variation. It would sound great in headphones. Moving on…
Variation 5: Mozart uses syncopation (it’s not just for jazz) to offset the two hands.
Variation 6: Since he already offset both hands, now for something different. The melody now appears as chords. But to keep it lively, the left hand now has those sixteenth notes again.
Variation 7: The melody is still in the right hand, but now he turns it into a scale.
Variation 8: The music takes a sinister turn. Suddenly the melody is in a minor key (C minor). There is an echo effect as the right hand plays a phrase which is then repeated in the left hand.
Variation 9: This is a jaunty tune, we can’t stay minor for long! So back to C major. Now the notes are played staccato instead of flowing.
Variation 10: Let’s see, now what will he do? The melody merrily chases from one hand to another with sixteenth notes, triplets, and pizzazz. The works. The hands even cross (see video).
Variation 11: Ok, heading toward home, let’s slow down the tempo and make the melody sweet, lulling us into the comfort of returning home. Does a little bit of Mozart’s Austria work its way into this French tune? I think I can hear it.
Variation 12: Fooled you! Suddenly the tempo zips along with breakneck notes in the left hand and a disjointed melody in the right. Ta-da!
Wow. And that’s how you do a theme and variations. Well, that’s one way. If it were Bach, the melody might have been turned upside down, backwards, shifted up a few notes, and woven into a four-part fugue. Beethoven would have broken it down into its essential bits and scrutinized it from every possible angle. Schubert would have worked it over with a lead pipe until the melody, alternating between major and minor, burrowed its way into your skull…but in an elegant way (just kidding; I love Franz–don’t get me started…).
Want to hear more theme and variations? I’d suggest Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for a start. In fact if you really want to start something, contrast Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. Same music, different planets. Then set the cat amongst the pigeons with your musical friends by offhandedly saying “so whaddaya think… ’55 or ’81?” People always seem to have a favorite. Ask them why. Actually, you probably won’t even have to ask…