Fantasy-Variations on a Fragment by Schoenberg
piano (1991; rev. 2000) 5’
published by Sweet Child Music
recorded by Jeffrey Jacob, Contemporary American Eclectic Music for Piano, vol. 5, New Ariel AE005
recorded by Kris Carlisle, The American Evolution, private issue
Fantasy-Variations on a Fragment by Schoenberg was written over a two-day period in February of 1991 as a portion of the comprehensive examinations for my Ph.D. This speed was rather unusual for me, as I am not a particularly quick or facile composer; Rossini was apparently correct when he said, "Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity." The Variations is also unusual in my oeuvre at that time in that I had written few works for solo piano. It is a medium that I find daunting for a number of reasons, including the tremendous wealth of its repertoire as well as the technical challenges of writing idiomatically for the instrument.
The source material for the Fantasy-Variations is the opening of Schoenberg's Piano Piece Op. 11 #1. However, this "theme" is not heard in an unaltered form until the coda. Rather, the piece opens with a short fantasy on the various aspects of the original fragment that will be developed throughout my variations, including the original melody, the accompanying chords, and motives drawn from countermelodies. After this fantasy, the apparent "theme" is heard at a slower tempo; however, this is actually an inversion of the original theme, a playful (if slightly obscure) twist on the idea of writing a traditional theme and variations.
There are a number of similar hidden "jokes" throughout the Variations. For example, the second variation begins with a dramatic arpeggio, mimicking the arpeggio that immediately follows the opening fragment in the Schoenberg original. Likewise, the dotted rhythms of the third variation and the low undulating thirds of the sixth variation both mimic later gestures of the original. A more humorous tweak occurs in the fourth variation, where I quote the exact rhythms of Schoenberg's Fourth String Quartet (a piece often studied during my doctorate), but with the pitches of Schoenberg's piano piece substituted instead. While these hidden jokes are perhaps too obscure to be recognized by most listeners, they are incorporated to contribute to the overall sense of quirkiness which I wanted the Variations to project (perhaps I was thumbing my nose at the requirements of doctoral exams?). Indeed, the Variations end in a subdued and inconclusive manner, as if I wished that I had more than two days to write them . . .