During the Romantic Era in classical music, roughly from 1800 to 1850 (though it continued to be expressed for decades after that), serious European composers enjoyed displaying their prowess in composing sets of pieces on a short lyric formula. Many of these composers were highly skilled at the keyboard, and during the Romantic period, one of the chief social events was giving an intimate performance to select audiences, during which young impressionable ladies in the audience, overcome by the exalted power of the musical "genius," would swoon in thrall to the outpouring of emotion communicated through the music. This swooning was the metaphorical evidence of the capacity of art to move human emotion, especially love, longing, despair, regret, loss, and intense joy. Young ladies were imagined to be particularly susceptible to such extremes of emotion, perhaps as a consequence of their inherent "weakness" or vulnerability. So much for sexual freedom!
Robert Schumann [1810-56] composed the suite Carnival [1834-5, subtitled Little Scenes on Four Notes, consisting of 21 ordered pieces], inspired by his love for his then fiancé, Ernestine von Fricken. The four notes are codes--for the town where Ernestine was born, the word for carnival in German, the word for Ash Wednesday, and finally for Schumann's own name. The idea of composing a set of variations was by no means a new concept by this time, but the idea of stretching the range of musical styles and extremes was a hallmark of romantic expression, like performing a feat of protean transformations.
The tradition of the young precocious virtuoso performing magic and majestical feats at the keyboard is alive and well in our own time, and young Evgeny Kissin's performance of the Carnival is a prime example of the trope. The brevity of each piece in the suite belies the seriousness of the musical ideas employed. It's rather like seeing a dancer do 20 different kinds of steps. Sort of a "look, ma, no hands" affair as the audience gapes with astonishment at each masterful incarnation. Schulman's not beyond making fun of some of the styles; in one, he even parodies his contemporary Chopin, though the sound is so beautiful, you wonder how Frederic wouldn't have appreciated the gesture.
Too, there's something of the alchemical about using a coded formula as inspiration for an emotional statement. Part divine formula, part secret reference. It places the composer in the position of interpreter of the oracle, receiving inspiration from a set of keys to which only he has access, by virtue of his genius--a very romantic idea.
The Young Brahms
Music is by its nature rhythmic, and harmonic, but the idea of extending a piece of music beyond the initial rhythmic scheme that defines a work, to longer forms (such as a symphony) didn't really take hold until the beginning of the Romantic period. You can see the difference by comparing an early symphony of Mozart's, to a late one by Beethoven. For the Romantics, a musical idea could be extended into a kind of journey, which might include a number of different tempi, instrumental choices, changing moods etc.
This quality of journey led to a greater level of abstraction, which is evident in Beethoven, and also in Brahms. But the interest in suites of shorter pieces, as expressions of the progression of a ideas which cohere around a specific theme or inspiration, is also a strong aspect of the Romantic tendency. The individual pieces are linked into a sequence of versions of the initial theme, which may be concealed beneath improbable inventions, only to re-emerge, slightly altered, in a later part. As the sequence proceeds, the gathering emotional inertia may lead inevitably to a thematic crescendo, summarizing the triumphant fulfillment of the whole. And the variety of kinds of musical styles or types, keeps the listener alert, and refreshed. Unlike in a Romantic symphony, where the musical ideas may get bogged down in long meditations, a suite of variations may create the same sense of satisfaction and pleasure while not demanding the same level of continuous mental concentration.
Johannes Brahms was a composer I had to grow to love over time. His thick, lush harmonies, and very dense compositional style always put me off as a student of the keyboard, and his passionate sternness didn't appeal to me in my youth. It was years before I heard his Hungarian Rhapsodies, some of which are as light-hearted and playful as anything in the classical canon. I think I first heard his Variations and Fugue on a Them by Handel* about 30 years ago, in a recording by the late, great tragic pianist Julius Katchen, who died at the age of 42 of cancer. The Handel Variations begin unobtrusively with the simplest quotation from the theme, then proceed through 25 variations, ending in a brilliant fugue. The suite moves easily through varying moods and styles, though the level of skill required to perform it are considerable, taxing the ability of any serious player. Brahms is less playful and tongue-in-cheek than Schumann is in Carnival, but the range of emotional moods is just as various.
The older Brahms
What is the literary counterpart of a variations on a theme in music? Perhaps a series of sonnets, like Shakespeare's. Perhaps a sequence such as Berryman's Dream Songs. Or Berrigan's Sonnets. Or Spicer's The Holy Grail. Or Creeley's Numbers. There's something show-off-y about running a series of changes in a strict form, without losing inspiration or interest. It's somehow a proof of artistic genius, to exploit a form just for the sake of doing it. I've essayed the form in my poems "The Boat" and "Poem in Twenty Sections" though I'm not very certain of the ultimate value of doing it. The notion of the demonstration of craft is more important to traditionally-minded artists or craftsmen than those of us who like to explore free-form composition. I would never say that doing so is either easier or less fulfilling than inventing a new form, though.
In music, maintaining a thematic core is a demanding requirement just as it is in language, requiring both flexibility and facility. Which is more difficult, to write a sonnet sequence or a theme and variations for the keyboard?
*Played here by Murray Perahia, a brilliant performer.