Mozart – Variations on a Theme by Gluck, K. 455

by Max Derrickson

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart    (b. January 27, 1756 in Salzburg; d. December 5, 1791 inVienna)

Variations on a Theme by Gluck, K. 455
(10 Variations in G Major on Unser Dummer Pobel)

The art form of what is known as the “variation” has its roots long before the time of Bach (1685 – 1750).  Creating musical “variations” emerged, surprisingly, with the court musicians around the time of the Renaissance who provided the dance music for courtly functions.  Because most dance tunes were only 8-12 bars long, repetition of the tune was necessary so that the dance could last a while.  Naturally, playing such a short tune repeatedly led to tedium, and thus it was that court musicians began to improvise on the theme, changing various aspects of it, but not undermining the tempo or harmonic structure as to allow the dance to continue – hence, variations on a theme.  As music evolved, so did musician’s ability to improvise on nearly any occasion, and by the time that Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven were masters of the Western musical world, it was not only common, but indeed expected, that a musician could improvise on a random tune for quite some time.  This was, in fact, usually the highlight of a public performance.  Mozart and Beethoven in particular were extraordinary improvisers, and Mozart himself showed his keen abilities precociously at the age of ten.

The art of improvising itself evolved into written sets of improvisations, known as “Variations,” or “Theme and Variations.”  The formal genre of the variation form came into full bloom in Bach’s day and his Goldberg Variations are a towering example.  In due time,

[. . .]
But it is clear that Mozart chose to write this set of piano variations in honour of his contemporary and friend, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714 – 1787), renowned as one of the great opera innovators in his time and an influence on Mozart’s own early operas.  In fact, as the story is told, Mozart improvised the work during one of his concerts that was attended by Gluck in 1783 and set it to paper a year later in 1784.*

The theme used in this delicious set comes from Gluck’s comic opera Die Pilgrimme von Mekka of 1764.  The theme is simple and yet delightfully pretentious, with two phrases, or parts, and it comes from a buffoonish moment in the opera as the selfish and greedy Kalender Monk reflects upon the idiotic perceptions of the “Der Dummel Pobel” (the stupid man in the streets) regarding his diet.

Mozart’s work begins with Gluck’s aria theme outright, as was convention, and repeats it twice.  It then proceeds with grace into the first variation.  The common practice for variations was to begin
[. . .]
with occasional trade offs with the treble (right, or top) hand.

By the fourth variation, however, Mozart begins to break out, playing with the character of the original theme, and complicating the harmonies.  Mozart also delightfully captures the silly and absurd spirit of Gluck’s aria in a sort of editor’s comment, when, as the Monk’s theme tromps
[. . .]
The key is now changed from G-major to G-minor and the tempo is slowed in gravity.  A few added filigree notes
[. . .]
an inordinate amount of neighbouring tones – pitches that are out of sequence in a scale-wise succession of notes, and sound “wrong,” until they are quickly resolved.

By far, however, the gem of the whole set is variation 9, the lengthiest and most clever.  Mozart here appears to be paying homage to those who came before himself and Gluck.  The opening of this variation sounds like an amalgam of a Bach prelude and a Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) sonata, while drifting
[. . .]
It’s a truly magnificent moment.

As only such a master as Mozart could create, the piece is wonderfully paced, balancing virtuosity, wittiness and sheer brilliance.  Along the way, listen for how the otherwise duple feel of the original Gluck theme is often changed by Mozart into a triple feel (variations 3 and 10), how tempos progress and slacken, how the melody becomes morphed into remnants of itself (especially in variation 8), but all the while allowing you to still feel pulled to the anchor of the original theme.  In a day and age when variations and improvisation were quite the rage among Viennese audiences, Mozart was clearly one of its greatest creators.


*(Thank you to Michael Bulley for catching an earlier error I made in these dates.}