Thursday, July 11, 2013

Talking Variation Blues

I like to take the pulse of music journalism from time to time because it is the one area of music criticism that has the greatest public profile. The way music journalism is practiced tends to shape the way a lot of people look at music.

I have praised the Guardian's music section a number of times, especially for its year-long series on contemporary music. But now I find I have to criticize them for another article, a purportedly informative one on the variation. This is going to require a bit of detail, so bear with me. Here is the first paragraph:
If sonata form is about the process of reaching a destination, variation form is more about taking pleasure in the journey itself. While sonata form explores material through argument – contrasting ideas thrashed out and eventually synthesised – variation form is more about one unopposed idea being explored, mined, twisted and turned in a monologue of elaboration.
As an introduction it is not too bad, but notice that what we are getting here is pure metaphor, not one actual fact. How is "sonata form" about the process of reaching a destination? What does that mean? And if variation form is "more about taking pleasure in the journey itself" does that mean that sonata form does not take pleasure in the journey? Is sonata form as Hegelian as the next sentence implies? What can we understand about "contrasting ideas thrashed out" in the absence of any examples? Is variation form really about one "unopposed idea" being explored?

What I am saying here is that we have nothing but a succession of vague metaphors, ultimately empty of meaning. Let's look at the second paragraph:
When instruments began to sing alone without voices and when that music began to be written down, variation was the commonest form by which short musical ideas were extended. A catchy tune could be pinned down and strung along by repetition and embellishment. By the classical era, sonata form had been invented and eventually became ubiquitous, but writing sets of variations remained a rich source of expression for composers.
OK, yes, there was a point in music history when pure instrumental music began to be written down. But the article doesn't bother to tell us when that was which was from the middle of the 15th century on. This paragraph is ok as far as it goes, which is not very far. Oh, and sonata form became the most important form in the classical era, but always in company with other forms such as the dance movements, scherzos and rondos. Slow movements often were in variation form. Here is the next paragraph:
Variation sets are usually lighter in intellectual substance than a composers's greatest works, decoration more than architecture, but occasionally a composer will reach beyond the superficiality of the form to find the greatest heights of inspiration and a Goldberg or a Diabelli is born. It is as if the greatest minds, when released from the necessity to think through a complex problem, can show something of the blinding, unwitting intricacy of their subconscious as they deal with something simple and straightforward. It's often called genius.
 It is probably true that most sets of variations are pretty lightweight--Handel's come to mind--but the ones we tend to pay attention to, the Goldberg Variations of Bach and the Diabelli Variations of Beethoven, are precisely the opposite, both being pinnacles of compositional achievement. But the next bit of gobbledygook, where the article leaps straight into trying to find some arcane psychological motivation for writing variations, is again, meaningless. Did the writer not even realize how ridiculous the phrase "blinding, unwitting intricacy of their subconscious" is? Not to mention a tad ungrammatical?

The article limps along from there talking about various composers' takes on the Paganini Caprice No. 24, a theme that has inspired a lot more music than one would expect. Here is Jascha Heifitz playing the original piece by Paganini:

And just to end, let's have another example of the variation form, this time from the blues genre. All blues songs tend to be sets of variations built over a 12-bar pattern, hence the expression "12-bar blues". The harmonic pattern keeps repeating while over it various variations are performed, either sung (where the words are varied), or played on harmonica or guitar. Here is Blind Willie McTell with "Loving Talking Blues":

Incidentally, a very similar kind of variation was used in the lute duets from the English renaissance where one lute plays a repeating harmonic pattern, called a "ground", while the other goes to town on "divisions" or melodic variations in quicker notes.

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