Sunday, October 3, 2010

Thoughts on Arensky's Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) is as well-known for having been the teacher of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. But this set of variations, written as a memorial to Tchaikovsky, put Arensky on the map as a composer.

It was originally cast as a movement of his second string quartet in 1894 but was transcribed for string orchestra later that year and is known as the "Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky."

The theme is from the fifth song from Tchaikovsky's collection called "Sixteen songs for Children," Op. 54. The song, titled "Legend," is a Russian translation of a poem called "Roses and Thorns" by Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903).

The song is a Christian sentiment that imagines the young Christ tending roses to make a garland for his head. Instead of roses it is thorns that make the garland. After a lengthy piano introduction the strophe contains to stanzas of text [0:20]: Byl u Khrista-mladenca sad, (The young child Christ had) i mnogo roz vzrastil on v njom. (a garden full of red roses) On trizhdy v den' ikh polival, (And thrice a day he watered them,) chtob splest' venok sebe potom. (To make a garland for his head) Kogda zhe rozy rascveli, (When they were full-blown in the garden,) detej jevrejskikh sozval on; (He called the local children there,) oni sorvali po cvetku, (And each did pluck himself a rose,) i sad byl ves' opustoshjon. (Until they stripped the garden bare.) Tchaikovsky's formal design could be described as AABB CDAA Arensky modifies the form by eliminating the introduction and by modifying the ending to the following: AABB CDCD. He does this to solidify the stanza form. Tchaikovsky's model is like a rotational array cycling through the ideas in a format that becomes out of phase with the stanza format: Once Arensky gets to the seven variations he alternates between slow and fast music for each variation. This patterning creates a large-scale pulsing as one moves through the variations:

Variation I [1:22]: Un poco piĆ¹ mosso : Uses a bar-by-bar distribution of the theme which becomes fragmented and mapped onto different instruments.

Variation II [3:19]: Allegro non troppo; Tune in the high celli/viola. The violin figuration goes wild in sharp contrast to the meditative line of the theme.

Variation III [4:24]: Andantino tranquillo that slides into E major. The tune is in the violins, slowly unfolding. Listen for the gradual increasing escalations in the line.

Variation IV [5:52]: Vivace; with pizzicato accompaniment. The theme has almost completely dissolved; leaving only fleeting references. The pizzicato writing is a challenge to coordinate.

Variation V [7:29]: Andante with the tune in low celli and bass. The upper parts voice a new melodic idea. A conflict between the new idea and the theme creates tension in this variation.

Variation VI [10:08]: Allegro con spirito with mechanical 16ths pulsing. This variations creates a motor with which to drive the piece to its conclusion. The tune from the "B" section of the theme re-emerges.

Variation VII [11:23]: Andante con moto. This is the glowing heart of this work. Playing with mutes the strings have found their way to C major and play the original theme in inversion. It is a thrilling and lovely transformation.

Coda [13:21]: Moderato. The coda opens with muted harmonics and modulates back to E minor. The work ends quietly dissolving in the air. This is music that closes in dream.

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