Theme and Variations
Variation forms include ground bass, passacaglia, chaconne, and theme and variations.
Ground bass, passacaglia and chaconne are typically based on brief ostinato motifs providing a repetitive harmonic basis and are also typically continuous evolving structures.
‘Theme and variation’ forms are however based specifically on melodic variation, in which the fundamental musical idea, or theme, is repeated in altered form or accompanied in a different manner.
At the beginning of a movement, the theme is clearly stated. Each section thereafter in the movement is a variation on the theme. The variations may be as simple as a change in key or accompaniment, or a complicated restatement of the theme which may not be recognizable as the original theme. There may be any number of variations on the theme. The end of the movement will have a coda, an extended conclusion to the movement.
Variations are created by altering the rhythm, the melody, or the harmony (or all three) of
the theme. For example, the rhythm could be altered by changing the meter from 4/4 to
3/4, or the melody could be varied by changing from major to minor or vice versa.
Twelve variations on the theme “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”
In 1778 at the age of twenty-two, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed a set of twelve
variations on the theme “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” (better known to us as the nursery
rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) for the piano. (The “K” that appears with the
titles of Mozart’s works is an abbreviation for Köchel — Ludwig von Köchel
chronologically catalogued Mozart’s more than six hundred compositions.)
The notation for the theme is presented below in its entirety and excerpts of each of the
twelve variations. Study the notation to see the differences in each variation. Some
highlights of the unique features of the theme and each variation follow. Then, listen to a
recording of the piece to hear what you see and see what you hear. As you listen to each
variation and follow the notation, see if you can still hear the theme even though it is
Theme: The melody similar to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is presented in C major and 2/4 meter.
Variation 1: The right hand performs the melody, but it is embellished with running sixteenth notes.
Variation 2: Now the left hand performs the running sixteenth notes, but the melody is heard in the right hand.
Variation 3: The right hand performs the melody in a triplet (3’s) figure.
Variation 4: Now the left hand takes over the triplet figure, but the melody is heard in the right hand.
Variation 5: The right hand presents the melody, but in off-beat patterns.
Variation 6: The melody in chord format is featured in the right hand part while the left hand plays running sixteenth notes.
Variation 7: The melody is heard in running scale patterns in the right hand.
Variation 8: The melody is presented in C minor (parallel minor of C major) and there is imitation between the left and right hands.
Variation 9: The melody is performed staccato.
Variation 10: The left hand plays the melody with the right hand embellishing with sixteenth notes.
Variation 11: The tempo slows and the right hand performs the melody in a singing style.
Variation 12: The tempo takes off as the “decorated” melody is featured in the right
hand with the left hand playing fast running notes.
Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331
The Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 (300i), by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a piano sonata in three movements. It is uncertain where and when Mozart composed the sonata; however, Vienna or Salzburg around 1783 is currently thought to be most likely (Paris and dates as far back as 1778 have also been suggested). The sonata was published by Artaria in 1784, alongside Nos. 10 and 12 (K. 330 and K. 332).
Andante grazioso – a theme with six variations
Menuetto – a minuet and trio
Alla Turca – Allegretto
All of the movements are in the key of A major or A minor; therefore, the work is homotonal. A typical performance of this entire sonata takes about 20 minutes.
The last movement, “Alla Turca”, popularly known as the “Turkish March”, is often heard on its own and is one of Mozart’s best-known piano pieces; it was Mozart himself who titled the rondo “Alla Turca”. It imitates the sound of Turkish Janissary bands, the music of which was much in vogue at that time. Various other works of the time imitate this Turkish style, including Mozart’s own opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. In Mozart’s time, the last movement was sometimes performed on pianos built with a “Turkish stop”, allowing it to be embellished with extra percussion effects.