Ari Steisfeld

Variations with Aria (2016)
solo violin

Robert Morris

Program Notes

My Variations with Aria is almost, but not quite, (conceptually) neoclassical. It looks back on three types of variation sets. One is the progressive variation, which starts with a "theme" and gradually progresses in complication to a brilliant variation at the end. The other is the cyclic variation, in which the piece has the features of the progressive variation but ends with the theme. (Bach's D-minor Chaconne for vn solo, and Goldberg Variations are examples.) Many times these cyclic variations have a middle section of variations that is also progressive—this is often associated with a change of the key from minor to major (Bach Chaconne) or major to minor (Goldberg). But this change of mode is also sometimes a feature in progressive variations; but usually only one variation is in the other mode (and often more reflective in character). The third type of variation is the Webern type of variation, where every variation is related to the others in global way, so that any of the variations could be thought of as the theme. (Webern generalized Schoenberg's concept of developing variations (that Schoenberg saw in Brahms' music).)

Of course, variations have also been associated with displaying compositional and performance virtuosity, and the former times, variations were improvised as well as written down.

How does my piece fit in this conception of variations? Well, it is cyclic, but it has the aria (read "theme") at the end, although the opening variation could be heard as a theme in the light of the double and triple stops of the Bach Chaconne. (And the last measures of the aria return to the texture of the first variation and ends with a figure like at the end of the Bach (and also a d-minor chord.) My interpretation of the change of mode to major or minor (or vice versa) is the variation V that presents the very long held tones. The variations after this are more virtuosic.

As for a deeper connection with the cyclic variation idea, each variation is built out of six intervals (unordered dyads) that in union comprise the twelve-tone aggregate. In the first variation, this is obvious: the dyads are (G Eb) (A F#) (B G#) (D Bb) (E C#) (C F). The next variation uses the same dyads up a perfect fourth, which preserves three of the previous dyads (underlined). (C Ab) (D B) (E C#) (G Eb) (A F#) (F Bb). The piece goes through all twelve transpositions around the circle of fourths. However variation VIII sequences four transpositions to make a super-variation that is progressive in itself, leading to climax followed by a G.P.). (This idea of expanding a variation up to transcendence occurs in late Beethoven variations like the Diabelli and the second movement of the C-minor piano sonata Op. 111.) The final aria follows this. But in another way, each variation is related to all others under transposition of the dyads.

(The six basic dyads were chosen so that four of them each has one of the open strings of the violin (G Eb) (A F#) (B G#) (D Bb) (E C#) (C F). This was to make double-stops easier.)

Variations with Aria was composed for Ari Streisfeld in the fall of 2016, at which time he took a full-time position as Assistant Professor of Violin and Violin Pedagogy at the University of South Carolina School of Music.