Theme with Variations

Carl Nielsen

Theme with Variations

FS81, Op. 40

About this work

Nielsen's Theme with Variations for piano dates from 1916, the year which saw the composer make an auspicious return to keyboard music after a gap of nearly two decades. Like its conspicuous companion of the same year, the Chaconne, it shows the composer taking a newly rediscovered delight in the idiom of the piano and reveling in his own distinctive voice as the ideas seemingly came at white heat. Unlike the Chaconne, whose thorny harmony evolves as the work progresses, this work is knotty from the outset. The chorale-like opening theme itself vacillates between the distant keys of B minor and G minor, an effect which should be heard for fullest appreciation. The fifteen following variations follow a similar harmonic framework, but are far-ranging in contrast to one another. Nielsen looses no time in rethinking the theme; by the second variation, the original chorale is virtually indiscernible. With the third variation, the theme is treated with fragile and austere two-part counterpoint, only to be roughly elbowed aside by the turbulent fourth variation. Some of the subsequent variations are quite striking. Variation No. 6, for example, features a cat-and-mouse chase between the two vertical fragments of the opening theme. The seventh and eighth variations reveal the brooding reverie typical of the composer's more reflective moments, sensitive, but not sentimental. By contrast, the thirteenth variation draws on the device used in No. 6 in order to reinforce an aggressively humorous statement. In the last movement, the writing attempts to strain every bit of sonority from the instrument before leading to a tranquil conclusion, the chorale quietly complacent in its restoration.