Variations on a Theme

December 14, 2006 at 06:32 PM · Playing "Fantasia on Greensleeves" for Christmas has gotten me interested in hearing and studying other works for violin (or viola) that take a simple, beautiful, maybe well-known theme and do something creative with it. It seems to have been a technique that Vaughan Williams applied to wonderful effect.

His Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and Copland's Appalachian Spring both come to mind as orchestral works. But what about for a solo instrument?

Replies (33)

December 14, 2006 at 06:59 PM · Well known and for violin solo (among musicians, anyway):

* "Paganiniana" (Milstein's substitute variation set for Caprice #24)

* The doubles in Bach's first Partita (not full sets of variations, of course)

Just plain beautiful and moving: Beethoven violin sonatas #9 (2nd movement) and for me especially #10 (last movement). Beethoven was a master at writing interesting sets of variations, they're scattered through all his works.

December 14, 2006 at 07:14 PM · Mozart K 305 Sonata 2nd mvt

Messiaen Theme et Variations

Tartini L'arte dell'Arco

December 14, 2006 at 07:20 PM · Unless they are well written, variations can be like too much spice, but the suggestions you received....

I jam on "What Child is This" on piano and have since I was a kid, going through triplets, awesome appregios and throwing in Baroque simple variations for effect in between at places.

While one may not ever be able to use variations like Bach or Mozart, it is well worth as you noted to take a favorite melody and 'truly' make it your own.

Though I don't really consider it variations, I use Jesu-Joy of Man's Desire to run scales--makes sense to me--I just take the 7th and modulate it in/through all major keys.

I remember that it exists, but can't remember who it was, that took childrens themes and did this...

Finally, one can take songs like slow mvmt, from Pathetique and change the treatments to create what equates to variations if done well--falls somewhere between variations and just changing treatments.


December 14, 2006 at 07:42 PM · J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations (I can't play them, but I can play my Glenn Gould recordings)

Corelli: 'La Folia'

Paganini: Op.1 #24

Beethoven 'Kreutzer' Sonata, 2nd movement

Nielson: Praeludium und Thema mit Variationen Op.48 (for solo violin)

December 14, 2006 at 10:37 PM · From: Skowronski: Classical Recordings

According to Mr. Skowronski, he lists amongst his favorite Theme and Variations Paganini's "Moses" Fantasy and the quint-essential Irish folk melody set to music by Ernst, "The Last Rose of Summer." Each item is a 'test for the best' of you fiddlers out there,.... the "Moses" having to be performed entirely 'Sul G' while the Ernst employs and exploits virtually every deviate and perverse "fiddling" trick in the book.

Good luck to the most daring...........

Best regards,

Skowronski: Classical Recordings


December 14, 2006 at 09:28 PM · "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis" by Vaughan Williams because it is absolutely a gorgeous piece for strings, well orchestrated, and the chords are so lush and beautiful.

And to be cliche... Rach's 18th Variation on a Theme of Paganini, because it holds many fond memories, including walking down the aisle to it.

December 15, 2006 at 06:06 AM · The second movement of Haydn "Emperor" Quartet, second movement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata and Brahms's Variations on a Theme of Haydn are all pretty hard to beat.

December 15, 2006 at 09:51 AM · Second movement of the Tchaik piano trio.

December 15, 2006 at 02:09 PM · I love the Paganini GOd Save the King--but I have no taste I love schlock--lol

For great music department of variations I love the Beethoven fiddle sonatas--especially # 10.

December 15, 2006 at 04:35 PM · Dohnanyi, Variations on a Nursery Tune. I like the rest of the title: "for the enjoyment of humorous people and the annoyance of others." At one performance of this, giggles broke out in the audience. One man whispered to his wife that he didn't get it. She replied, "If you don't get it when you hear it you won't get it when I explain it." He must have been one of the annoyed.

December 15, 2006 at 07:29 PM · Try Paganini's Variations on the G String on Rosini's Moses. You'll be in for a technical thrill!


December 16, 2006 at 04:14 AM · No votes for Bach Chaconne? That and the Goldberg Variations are generally considered the most astonishing compositions in this area.

December 16, 2006 at 04:44 AM · Most of the Paganini variations for that sheer thrill...Bach's inevitable Goldberg variations..

Had some more...Iam absolutely sleepy...this is all I can recollect..:(


December 16, 2006 at 12:52 PM · My ulterior motive for this thread is actually not playing, but composing (and then playing, after composing, but that's actually not essential. If I can find a better player than myself who's willing to play my composition, great!)

I have a simple tune that I love that I would like to write variations on for violin and/or viola. What I want to do is study how others have done it before. Any technical thrill is totally beside the point.

December 16, 2006 at 03:59 PM · To learn from the master, see it done superbly with as simple a tune as you can get (almost minimalist!):

Beethoven, 14 variations on an Original Theme, Op. 44 (for piano trio) - a seldom-played gem, IMHO. You could call it "Variations on an Almost-Nonexistent Theme" (you'll see what I mean if you study the score and listen).

I'll repeat my admiration for Beethoven's skill at writing variations; if you want a model to learn from, you couldn't do better. He left us lots of fine examples for all sorts of instrumental combinations.

A very simple and lovely theme and 3 interesting variations for solo violin: middle movement of Prokofieff's sonata.

December 16, 2006 at 05:08 PM · shostakovich violin concerto cadenza of course.

most chaconnes are awesome: bach, vitali, corigliano, etc

as for paganini, the moses variations and the 24th caprices are pretty cool

most of the la folia variations are lovely pieces

elgar's enigma variations, tchaikovky's rococo variations, strauss's don quixote, and mozart's variations on "Ah, vous dirai-je, maman" (otherwise known as the extended "twinkle-twinkle" variations for piano) are all great "variations on a theme" works

December 18, 2006 at 01:15 PM · I love everyone's choices. I would add the 4th movement of the Brahms 4th Symphony (a true giant in the theme and variation structure), a few pieces by Kreisler, and (believe it or not) the Bartok Violin Concerto.


December 18, 2006 at 02:21 PM · From: Skowronski: Classical Recordings

To: Theme and various Variationers

We made mention earlier in this thread re Paganini's 'Moses' and Ernst's 'Last Rose of Summer.' But we would be myopically remiss if we did not include the venerable 'Passacaglia' by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber.

We heartily concur with Mr. Skowronski's belief that this wonderful work for solo violin should definitely appear more often on 'commercial' programs offered by today's concert violinists. However, take heed, this is no easy piece --beautiful, yes-- but no duck!

Happy fiddling to all for the coming Holidaze!!

Na zdrowie!

Skowronski: Classical Recordings

December 18, 2006 at 03:40 PM · Brahms variations on a theme of Haydn for two pianos...I heard Argerich and Freire live playing that piece in concert...There is also a splendid orchestration of the same work ( of course by the composer himself)...I love also ,for violin and piano, the Fritz Kreisler arrangment of La Folia...It is seldom played...Perlman made a nice recording ( Bits and Pieces) of these set of variations...

December 19, 2006 at 05:30 AM · The post-cadenza of Ravel's Tzigane is one of my favorite theme and variations.

Another that may be more of interest to you in writing a theme and variations for violin and viola would be the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia.

December 19, 2006 at 08:34 AM · I like Tzigane verry much too :)

i played a lot of this stuff, like the Last Rose of the Sommer by Ernst or " La Molinara " by Paganini, but these two are not THAT nice...

so i'd say the Variations from Moises :) the'yre beautiful...

and the Wieniawski's Variations on a Original Theme :)

December 19, 2006 at 02:51 PM · Nel Cor Piu Non Mi Sento, anyone? :)

December 19, 2006 at 03:58 PM · Maura: there is no original score of Nel cor piu non me sento...It was published for the first time in 1832 in an essay by Carl Ghur entitled "L'art de jouer du violon de Paganini"...Ghur did listen to several performances of Paganini himself playing this set of variations and transcribed them in his book were they figure at the very end along with the "Duo Merveille"...


December 19, 2006 at 05:28 PM · Weird! :)

December 19, 2006 at 10:11 PM · i like

prokofiev - peter and the wolf

brahms - variation on a theme of haydn

beethoven - diabelli variations

elgar - enigma variations

britten - young person's guide to the orchestra

beethoven - 5th symphony, 2nd movement

December 21, 2006 at 10:03 AM · Vaughan Williams-Fantasia on Thomas Tallis


December 21, 2006 at 09:08 PM · TO: Maura Gerety, who said "Nel Cor Piu Non Mi Sento, anyone?"

Yes, that's the one. I don't know where it's from, but I have a hand-written copy of seven variations on two lines of what is written on the top "nel cor piu -- beethoven"

That got my vote. Quite intense little arietta, I think.

December 21, 2006 at 10:20 PM · I really like the Wieniawski Variations on an Original Theme...beautiful melody and some real pyrotechinics....

December 24, 2006 at 07:48 PM · As full orchestra selections were mentioned, Enigma is unequalled by even the Brahms/Haydn, yet the Dvorak on original material is pleasant and good music. For the great composers working in sonata allegro form, the development is always about theme and variation despite not formally listed as such. Inner parts, yea the viola, are rhythmic and contour variations...the wonderment of music prevails.

December 26, 2006 at 11:43 PM · I'm surprised no one's said Rachmaninoff's Variations on a Theme by Paganini for Piano and Orchestra - It's fantastic!

December 27, 2006 at 01:13 AM · Karen,

As I recall, a good study of the techniques involved in the composition of the Goldberg Variations can be found in

clicking on the piece in question.

December 27, 2006 at 12:07 PM · Brahms' Variation on a Theme by Haydn...for symphony orchestra. :)

Gosh it's fun...

December 31, 2006 at 03:17 AM · Bach, D minor Chaconne for solo violin and Goldberg Varns.

Ponce, variations on La Folia for solo guitar

Britten, Nocturnal, for solo guitar

Beethoven, Symphony no. 7, mvt. 2

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