Variations on the Notion of Variation

Questioning the Whys of Composing

Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

April 4, 1987

Copyright ©1987 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz

During the past few months, I have not been able to provide ready answers in two important areas of questioning.

At one session, it was pointed out that whenever we examine a piece of music, we discover composers are using variation. Why variation? Is that all there is to the longer pieces of music? And if so, what is the point? After little thought, I came to agree that we have developed a rather large vocabulary to describe techniques which are all essentially variation. As for the point of doing it, I was perplexed to find an answer that didn't flail about in seas of "well, because".

In another session, it was asked why we should not simply listen to the music and appreciate it, rather than try to find out why a composer moves this way or that. At the time, I was unable to express satisfactory reasons for searching out the "why" of music's creation.

I offer this essay as a starting point for discussion of what our music is for us and what we seem to want from it.


In his Fundamentals of Musical Composition, Arnold Schoenberg (in summary) states that composers use variation to avoid boredom. But: why not simply make compositions shorter? What is wrong, ultimately, with a song or short tune?

That goes to the heart of the art of music. A song or tune is an idea, a motive, the genesis of a stream of thought. It is like a sketch or a design; like a postulate or hypothesis; like the stretching out of a pair of hands or a dance step; like a brief, simple statement of one's thoughts; like a conversational exchange of greetings.

A motive, sketch, postulate, motion, or statement is elucidated by framing, by contrast, by changes of lighting, by reflection, convolution, or reforming, by fleshing out, by proof. Its value as a kernel concept or seed idea is understood by what it grows (or is made to grow) into. The entire of a plant may be represented by the embryo, the seed. Certainly the imprint of every aspect of that plant is already there; why grow it? Only in its growth--its stages of breaking ground, turning up leaves, budding, providing flower and fruit, and its maturity and death--can all its beauty be revealed. If the flower were enough, then a plastic, photographic or sculptural replica (or, perhaps, even a memory) would suffice. If the seed in its compact completeness were satisfactory, then we would in our possession of myriad jars and envelopes of seeds be fulfilled. But the reality of our fascination is encompassed by all stages of development; it is our humanity--our search, our curiosity, our vision.

Likewise, songs or tunes are miniatures. Their beauty is but one part of the musical art form. Variation, alas, is a poor term to describe the complex growth, development, and flowering of a few kernels of musical idea through time. In fact, musical expression translates very poorly into other languages and is largely understood as some kind of human resonance (emotional, intellectual, sonic, spiritual, etc.) with compositions on their own terms. Like descriptions of wines, the terms often seem weak or silly: a wine's aroma is "complex" or its taste "brackish". A musical passage's orchestration is "transparent" or its harmony "discordant".

When the term variation is used, it signifies a series of practices and techniques which give expression to a set of sonic ideas. In any highly successful artform, reaction is not only on several levels of depth (the "resonance"), but across of span of reaction within each level (enjoyable to difficult, simple to complex, uplifting to discouraging, and so forth). The question of interpretation can only arise from the complexities and ambiguities provided by the artform's author. At times a simple idea is presented so starkly that we almost want to sense fraud (the music of Webern or Cage, the art of Brancusi or Klee, the writing of Cummings or Pinter, the dance of Cunningham). At other times, ideas are so engulfed by waves of complexity that we fear obfuscation (the music of Xenakis or Ligeti, the art of Pollack or Kandinsky, the writing of Joyce or Eliot, the dance of Bausch, the theatre of Ionesco). A sigh of relief greets those artists whose work seems immediately balanced (the music of Messaien or Fauré, the art of Dali or Henry Moore, the writing of Solzhenitsyn or William Carlos Williams, the theatre of Tennessee Williams, the dance of Graham).

Yet each of these sensations is for us, quite reasonably, based on not only personal tastes developed over time, but overall acculturation, depth of experience or knowledge in the artform, aptitude and interest coupled with span of attention, expectations from the artform, and--importantly--a willingness to suspend credibility, that is, to accept an artist's premise. Sometimes the suspension is minimal, as in the days of Mozart, when his music quite directly reflected a social state and temperament and the artistic statement resided in the high level of craft and imagination brought to quite familiar elements. Sometimes the suspension is extreme, as in the chance music of Cage, where the compositions reflect a personal philosophy drawn from Zen Buddhism.

The easiest traps are: confusing art and entertainment, and confusing likeability with artistic validity. This is tricky ground, and the subject of long studies and stressful discussions. Art is by nature entertainment, even if it entertains an audience that includes only the artist. How broadly art entertains reflects, however, on both artist and audience, and it is difficult to assign rightness or wrongness to this. A sampling of artists whose visions have been vindicated, so to speak, (even as they go in and out of "fashion") include Ives, Mahler and Gesualdo; Joyce, Burroughs and Villon; Wright and Gropius; Eisenstein and D. W. Griffith. Other artists, however entertaining, vanish into obscurity.

The second trap, likeability vis-a-vis artistic validity, presents the most difficult dilemma. There is little question of "liking" Mozart, Byron, Michelangelo or even Lully or Salieri, Ogden Nash or Rod McKuen, and the Wyeths; for the images they present are welcoming. On the other hand, the difficult subjects, styles, and presentations make a fiction of "liking" Shakespeare as represented by Hamlet or Lear, the early drug fantasies of Burroughs, the grittiness of much Tennessee Williams, the pain of the Pietà, the confrontational or confusing films of Fellini; for the images these present are forbidding and troublesome. Challenge contains little easy likeability.

Furthermore, when art-ness rose out of artisan-ness, a dilemma was presented and, curiously, an opportunity for elitism was prepared. The history is complex, including notions of ecclesiastical and secular patronage, revised homage to the new economic classes, disturbing questions of democracy and egalitarianism, and so on. But the results, that which we live with today, are many strata (as well as media) of artistic expression, from so-called "popular" forms (largely those presentable with modern mass-marketing techniques) to so-called "high art" (largely those not easily presentable). Marketing is done to different degrees within each stratum; a curious modern example is the classical music industry, where such recordings represent less than five percent of sales in the United States, and are marketed not for their artistic value but largely for their visceral rewards and intellectual credentials. ("Thrill to the joy of great music in your own home.")

Pressured by these concerns, the notion of music's alleged "universality" is called into question. Its written language has become universal, satisfyingly far moreso than Esperanto, but that is not the intent of those who contend music is a universal language. It has universal appeal, perhaps, or communicates a universal message.

But. Does Mozart communicate any part of his era to us, or have we created our own vision of this music? Would Beethoven's compositions (sometimes thought chaotic in his own day) make sense on any level--artistic, entertainment, emotional, spiritual, what have you--to Dufay's contemporaries? Does the music of the Indian raga or the Javanese gamelan move us as it does its constituents, if it moves us at all? How does a West African drummer communicate to a Boston urbanite; a free-form jazz artist to a Soviet bureaucrat; a Tibetan monk to an Iowa farmer; a country & western band to Viennese high society? Or, in less contrast, how does a West African drummer communicate to a country & western band; a free-form jazz artist to Viennese high society?

If these questions can be deemed invalid (or at least aberrational) for the contemporary age, then consider this one: have we moved into a world where homogeneity of artistic expression has made the music of the present or of any previous age and alternate culture a means of universal expression for us, today? And, if so, how has so much contemporary music--not just avant-garde or experimental, but jazz, "mainstream" classical, Latin and Near Eastern, for example--lost its place in this universal frame? Can it not somehow be associated with contemporary goals of "instant gratification"?

All of this may seem digressive to the subject of variation; not so. Variation--the avoidance of boredom--is a musical essential. It not only provides the composer with the self-aggrandizing and rather shallow opportunity of showing off, but also offers a means of challenge and question, a route to larger human fulfillment and deeper gratification. Music is not an endless series of small, aural bonbons. It is a rich and rewarding cuisine.

Where can variation be found? Certainly in the classical form that bears its name, and in all other larger compositional efforts; historically, within medieval compositions and from one to the next (the multiple compositions to the same plainchant form the readiest examples); strongly in jazz, where the concept of improvisation is at its heart a series of variations (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural) on a tune; connecting the popular song form, as a new recorded release of a song is in reality a re-interpretation based on imaginative recreation (i.e., variation) of the original; in ethnic musics, where vocal or instrumental virtuosity is revealed by reworkings of speed and ornamentation. In fact, variation is present at every stage of musical composition and performance ... the only excption being the presentation of the original tune (though variation sometimes even exists within its structure) and any deliberately identical imitations. It is, indeed, the very moments of variation which draw our ear to an artist's compositional, vocal or instrumental artistry.

Thus, music provides arranged and organized sounds for the mind and spirit; it should cause wrinkled brows and scowls, smiles and chuckles, sighs and held breath, raised eyebrows and sly winks, anger and gratitude, amplification and focus, confusion and clarity, questions and answers, and more. How many of these responses it evokes depends on the skill and imagination of the artist and the skill and imagination of the audience.


But why do we want to know any of this? Should we care about the path of music through history, or the path of individual composers? If Beethoven broke the mold of Haydn and Mozart, should it matter why, or merely that it happened? If Brahms, Franck and Mahler were intimidated by the memory of Beethoven, should it concern us when we study the music of these composers? If Stravinsky, having resisted Schoenberg's approach for 40 years, finally opened his arms to it, should we want to know why?

The alternative to asking why is not only acceptance of what is, but rejection of what also is. Art can be divorced from its time and place, from its creation and development. But if we are considering history--and listening to all but very recent music is indeed considering history--then selective rejection of historical information integral to what we are studying might show us to be little better than dictators who would omit history not to their own liking. So if we search for the reason for Beethoven's choice of a certain B-flat, then we can search the composition (certainly our primary source), his sketchbooks (another primary source), and we can also consider (and reject, if we see fit) what we know of Beethoven himself.

It is true that the latter consideration places us in dangerous territory; in fact, the art world is camped securely on both sides of the issue. One camp is certain that every work of art speaks for itself alone; the other camp finds truth only in divining the motives of the artist.

If we are concerned about any given B-flat Beethoven might have chosen, then we are bound to fail in our attempt to journey through the composer's mind. However, if the B-flat occurs at a pivotal moment in a pivotal composition in the gentleman's career, then an evocation of motives and influences is welcome.

The specific question to be addressed is this: why should it be important that Stravinsky embraced Schoenberg's techniques after decidedly rejecting them for a generation? Does this question matter in assessing Stravinsky's music? Schoenberg's? This century's? Western music as a whole? Should the fact that Stravinsky did accede to the validity of Schoenberg's concepts speak for itself? Or should we dismiss the question entirely as irrelevant to the musical compositions at hand?

The question might be simpler if applied to earlier times, where evidence is scanty. But Stravinsky was a prolific writer and lecturer as well as a composer, and his stand in opposition to his colleague was strong, even bitter. Stravinsky's compositions might have taken a different turn earlier if he had not adopted so strong and public a stand. Schoenberg, who died twenty years before Stravinksy, would never know his influence on the Russian master. The debate in musical circles regarding the dodecaphonic system would be reinvigorated by Stravinsky's action, and there would be strong reactions all 'round--not least from Igor Stravinksy himself. And finally, the success of his twelve-tone works would serve to vindicate Schoenberg in an unexpected way.

So should we ignore the volumes of debate and dismiss them as mere polemic, rather referring exclusively to the composer's musical career as self-revelatory? Yes, we can. And we will find, quite simply, that Stravinsky moved from late Russian romanticism (the early symphony and songs), through bitonality (Petrouchka) and primitivism (Le Sacre), through neoclassicism (Symphony of Psalms), eventually embracing the dodecaphonic style late in life. Musically, there is quite a substantial oeuvre for our examination; hearing and understanding the music is satisfying in itself.

Yet is not the curiosity aroused by this surprising change? If we knew nothing of the history of twentieth century music, then we might hear the twelve-tone system in Stravinsky as merely a new musical development. But, in fact, we do know what happened since Schoenberg published his ideas in the 1920's, and we ignore them at our own risk.

Consider all of these: Had Stravinsky's works been influenced by the twelve-tone system all along, and should we therefore hear them differently? Did Stravinsky believe the system would only work in his hands? Was his accession the act of a dried-up composer desperate for ideas? Are the twelve-tone pieces junk? Does his choice, rather than validate dodecaphony, invalidate Stravinsky instead? Should those who reject the twelve-tone system reject these Stravinsky works only, or all of Stravinsky because of his inevitable course toward dodecaphony? And, finally, how different has music been and will music forever be because of Stravinsky's choice?

If these questions matter, then Stravinsky's reasons--the whys of his choice--become issues of more than curiosity, but of dramatic interest. The rest is evident: who, what, when, where, and how. But the last piece of the puzzle of human creativity is only proferred when we ask "why".

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