The Art of Variation
I’ve written a couple sets of variations for the piano over the years – one a set of 12 variations on Jesus Loves the Little Children and another on a Korean folk melody – but I’ve generally looked down on the genre. Variations are a little too easy – you’ve got a tune and you just change a harmony here or give it a slightly different accompaniment there and you have a variation. Too simple. But that was of course before I started playing the Goldberg Variations of Bach. Wow! The Goldberg Variations are an amazing set of variations. But they are not variation on a tune as we would usually expect but on the ground or bass line of the first piece – the Aria. And Bach shows his inexhaustible imagination as he takes that bass line and develops permutation after permutation writing lyrical pieces, jigs, virtuosic showstoppers, to even fugues. And of course there are the masterful Enigma Variations by Sir Edward Elgar. Written for his friends these variations explore various moods, colors, and textures and at one moment touch the heart with melancholy and the next inspire a grand nobility.
Those are only two examples of a wide variety of musical variations ever written but music is not the only place we see variation. In fact variety is all around us. What is a great dane to a dachshund other than another variation of the dog family. Or a lion to a common house cat but a variation of the cat family. And what about planets, stars, oceans, rivers, trees, clouds, and snowflakes. They are all variations on a particular subject. And what is a variation? It is something that has something in common with another object or being but also has key differences at the same time. So a leaf is related to all leaves as it is produced by a living plant and is organic but different at the same time from other leaves in both shape, size, and color. It is similar enough to categorize together but different enough to bring variety and enjoyment to us. And every human on the this planet is similar enough to other humans that even a baby can tell the difference between say a human and an animal but yet each and every human on earth is distinct and different and is fearfully and wonderfully made by the Creator. And we are made in the image of God – we are in fact a variation, if you will, of God-ness. And what are children but variations of their parents – taking similarities but also coming out distinctly their own.
So all of this meditation on variations to announce that I am working on a set of variations on the tune, Terra Patris, or rather the hymn This Is My Father’s World. I started back at the beginning of 2017 and I plan on writing them all this year before I take them and develop them into a full scale orchestral piece (something I have never done before). The process has been a lot of fun but it is hard after a while to come up with fresh ideas without resorting to cliches (a march variation, a waltz variation, a alberti bass variation, etc…). I plan on adding new scores of my variations on this website and the first I want to show is my Variation VIII. It is a slightly jazzy and laid back variation. My plan is to keep writing variations, eventually develop a two piano version of the work, and then orchestrate that. Many composers have written a two piano version first before orchestrating so I thought that would be a smart choice for me as well. This also ensures that the musical structure and harmonies are sound before I begin orchestrating.
Variations are all around us and are there for our enjoyment from God. Appreciate them and create some of your own.
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My name is Jeff Howard. I am a husband, father, pastor, and musician.