A Listener’s Guide to Gaze Transfixt: Variations on a Folksong for piano solo Op.23
This is a set of variations on a folksong said to be George Washington’s favorite.
Theme: In E major, although accompanied laconically by a series of pitches which, in another composition and under different methods, might be a tone-row. But it would be a dull tone-row in a serial piece, because of the limited intervalic content — it arranges the twelve pitches of the octave into a series of melodic major seconds (interval class 2): [A,G] [C,D] [A#,G#] [F,D#] [E,F#] [C#,B] [G,A]. Another reason why it is not strictly a tone-row is, it comes back to the first dyad at the end; but part of the structural game of the piece is playing with the tension between a lovely, tonal melody, and materials which pull away from tonality.
Variation [i]: Very simple; melody restated verbatim in E major. TWD (The Wayward Dyads) accompanies, in a different transposition, and registrally separated.
Variation [ii]: The first of a number of wilful rhythmic adjustments to the pitch-faithful tune; a sort of toccata-game with the melody in fifteenths (e.g., two octaves) and dry other-stuff going on in the middle, shared between the two hands. Melody is in C major, taking off from the closing three pitches of [i]. The last chord is a simple pentachord, the five notes of the pentatonic scale on F. The uppermost pitch is G, so ...
Variation [iii]: ... melody in RH is in G major, rhythmically forced to 5/8. Left hand is a kind of inversion, one note staggered, at transpositions chosen to irritate G major. Brief variation, this.
Variation [iv]: An ostinato on the 5/8 from [iii], and also a kind of canon, though it is not written to sound particularly canonic. Bass voice is a free inversion of the melody; soprano voice, when it comes in, is a strict transposition of the bass, a major third up (interval class 4); the tenor and alto voices are TWD, inversions of one another. This describes, technically, where I get the notes (how I “justify” them), but the simple fact is, I liked the chords. My feeling is, do whatever fancy things with pitches you like, as long as the result is musical; and throw out anything if the result is unmusical, rather than insist on it because you have a system which “proves” it “right.”
Variation [v]: The soprano voice at the end of [iv] sets the tune up in E major, and the general tenor of the Variation is romantic, the chords are all common practice, but they’re wrong (by common practice principles). This variation doesn’t take the musical world by storm, but I like it.
Variation [vi]: A furious toccatina consisting essentially of arpeggiated chords which, some other day, might be used to creatively harmonize the tune.
Variation [vii]: I wrote this quasi arpa variation just because I like the sound of the piano strings up there; the left hand is a free mirror of the tune in F major. There are added “trillo” remarks from TWD down in the basement.
Variation [viii]: Even by common practice standards, the melody is schizoid here ... first half is in B-flat, second half in E-flat. TWD appears as “blippy” grace notes.
Variation [ix]: Just a fragment of the tune appears against rapid arpeggi which loosely recall [vi].
Variation [x]: This was the variation I wrote with the thought, What if Copland used this tune in, say, Billy the Kid?
Variation [xi]: The melody wavers between e minor and e phrygian in high register; fifths plod down below.
Variation [xii]: A variation of [xi]; the tune is exploded registrally, tempo is faster, and there are some repeated notes.
Variation [xiii]: A deliberately jarring return to (some echo of) traditional harmonic syntax. The tune is in g natural minor (aeolian mode). Apart from the ornamentation, the left hand is a strict canon at the octave.
Variation [xiv]: I wrote this seven years ago, and I couldn’t say exactly where this comes from, pitch-wise. Probably an exploration of “derived chords” in the spirit of (iv). This is pseudo-Messiaen, with an emphasis on ‘pseudo.’
Variation [xv]: In an abrupt recantation, the tune comes back in simple G major (and 7/8); the left hand confirms all your mother’s warnings about the excesses of Alberti bass.
Variation [xvi]: Wrote this with the englishry of Holst and Vaughan Williams in view; in D major.
Variation [xvii]: Yet another mishandling of that by-now-worried-to-distraction tune, in d aeolian, with TWD moving slowly in the left hand.
Variation [xviii]: The tune here returns to E major, in a manner suggestive of Couperin, or rather, in an exaggeration of that manner, though there is affection even in the exaggeration. TWD in the bass are gruff yet reserved.