Music of the homophonic-melodic style of composition, that is, music with a main theme, accompanied by and based on harmony, produces material by, as I call it, developing variation. This means that variation of the features of a basic unit produces all the thematic formulations which provide for fluency, contrasts, variety, logic and unity on the one hand, and character, mood, expression, and ever needed differentiation, on the other hand—thus elaborating the idea of the piece.
Arnold Schoenberg, from “Bach” (1950)
This fall our series of three concerts on the theme “Various Variations” began with a new treatment of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Our second concert was introduced by a quote from Robert Schumann identifying Bach as the one indispensable source for composers of all music that was to follow.
For our third and final fall concert on the same theme—in the music of Bach, Beethoven, and others–we offer some of the most beloved music of Johannes Brahms in three consecutive opuses: 99, 100, and 101, all played for the first time on November 24th and December 2nd, and 20th 1886, respectively. In these works Brahms unfolds music that Arnold Schoenberg was to cite as primary examples of music in which “nothing [is] repeated without promoting the development of the music, and that can only happen by way of far-reaching variations.”
With very few words and tantalizingly short examples, Arnold Schoenberg describes the process of unfolding basic materials, motifs and intervals, into large pieces through a technique he called developing variation. Every aspect of the music is derived from the first material one hears. Schoenberg recognized Brahms as the latest in a series of supreme masters of the art and tried to associate the creation of his own music and techniques with this tradition. That only the strongest ideas could become great pieces by surviving the infinite traceable variations of a creative mind is not unknown in the era since Darwin’s Evolution, Einstein’s Relativity, and the “Big Bang Theory”. Schoenberg’s description of what goes on in Brahms’s style and idea remains informative and compelling to this day.
On a personal note, I should say only recently I recalled that one of these three was the one around which I organized my late teenage and young adult life for a period of about five years. I went to every live performance I could find. It was my “desert island” piece then, and remains so today, even after knowing much more music and learning from Schoenberg how this one is supposed to work. I won’t say which one it is. Nor, do I have any explanation why none of these includes viola. That’s for another time.