CLAIRE MARIE BLAUSTEIN and NAN COOLSMA
Welcome to the fourth volume of the McMaster Music Analysis Colloquium. If you’ve seen any of the prior issues, you know that each edition of this journal is centered on a specific musical formal structure. In this particular edition, we’ll be dealing with Theme and Variations.
The Webster’s definition of Theme and Variations is a standard form of musical composition consisting of a simple melody presented first in its original unadorned form and then repeated several or many times with varied treatment so based on the theme that at least some semblance of its general melodic or harmonic form is evident.
To a point this is a correct definition. But, given that the writers in this journal were all presented with the same form as a basis for their analytical research, it was fortunate for them and is for you that it can also mean much more, and the work that you will read here is anything but “standard”.
The music we look at has travelled to us from Austria, the United States, Italy, Hungary and Romania, from as close by as Toronto and as far away as South India; from as early as the late18th century to the late 20th century.
It wears a variety of dress, from the down-to-earth honky tonk of Meade Lux Lewis’ Honky Tonk Train to the tuxedoed formality of Healey Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E-flat minor. Its character ranges from the folk-based melodies of Bela Bartok”s setting of Rumanian Christmas Carols to the intricacies of Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations or the minimalism of Steve Reich’s Variations for Wind, Strings and Keyboards.
You may wonder what the jazz composition “Blue in Green” by Miles Davis, the 18th century classical work Variations for piano in C major on “Ah, vous dirai-je maman” K. 265 (300e) by Mozart and, and the south Indian composition Saint Thyagaraja’s Merusamana have in common. But all three works owe a debt to the art of improvisation.
And demonstrating the forms ability to cross the boundaries of time, place, and style, David Baker’s Ethnic Variations on a theme of Paganini, based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice - variations on variations - takes the form out of its strictly classical environment and transplants it to a third stream setting.
But beyond the music, beyond the notes, and beyond anything that is written on a page, here or elsewhere, Theme and Variations is a part of life. All the writers here share a common theme - we are students, we are musicians, we share a love for music that has brought us here to this university and to this particular project. But we also represent our own variations - diverse backgrounds, diverse interests, and diverse styles, different ways of thinking and talking about music.
It is the variations in life that make it interesting, and the variety in music that makes it worth talking about. So please feel free to explore our variations, and enjoy.
Claire Marie Blaustein and Nan Coolsma, Editors.