Theme and Variations

A Musical Form found mostly in Classical Music in which there is a theme, for which embellished, simplified, complexified, or otherwise altered versions are composed. Generally speaking, it is customary to perform the theme first, followed by the variations, in an order specified by the composer.

This form is related to the passacaglia a.k.a. Chaconne, which seems like a derivative idea of this form but actually predates it (though the idea of making variations on stuff of course predates both).

Sometimes, an entire soundtrack is built off of this concept: see Theme-and-Variations Soundtrack.

Examples are very common in Classical Music, but here are some notable ones:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations. Since Bach was symmetry-obsessed, the original aria is repeated after the last variation.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Six Variations, 32 Variations in C minor (which is more like a Passacaglia actually), Eroica Variations.
  • Benjamin Britten: The Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra (subtitled "Variations and Fugue on a theme by Purcell")
  • Fryderyk Chopin: Variations on "La ci darem la mano"
  • Edward Elgar: Enigma Variations. Unusual in that the theme is not played first, and in fact Elgar refused to tell what it actually is.
  • George Frederic Handel: The Harmonious Blacksmith (video here)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Variations on "Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman" (better known to English-speakers as the tune for Twinkle, twinkle little star.)
  • Paganini: Variations on a Theme in G, which was later adapted by Julian Lloyd-Webber (Andrew's more musically inclined brother) into a hit LP and theme for a TV arts show.