The Theme and Variations
Op 40, which Nielsen composed only a couple of months after finishing the Chaconne
, follows a similar formal and expressive trajectory: a broad, asymmetrical arch which begins with a sense of relative repose before growing and reaching an anguished, dissonant climax, and then draws rapidly away towards a more balanced conclusion. The theme itself is a characteristically original conceit which exemplifies, in miniature, the principle of structural modulation in Nielsen’s music that Robert Simpson called ‘progressive tonality’—the process of shifting from one tonic (or home key) towards another across the progress of a work. Here, the theme begins in B minor, but Nielsen swiftly exploits the enharmonic transformation of G sharp (A flat) as a means of exploring new harmonic areas, and the theme eventually closes in G minor. The first variation then begins by punning on the structural status of F sharp as leading note (in G minor) and dominant (in B). The theme’s open harmonic structure drives the variations that follow, which grow in intensity much like the variations in the Chaconne
. Variation 11 is a spiky ‘Capriccioso’, while Nielsen subtitles Variation 13 ‘Ostinato’, a number whose obstinate repeated figuration ultimately generates the dissonant climax of the work in Variation 15. From here, the piece subsides rapidly. Nielsen described the closing pages as ‘the wild response of a man who fights with his back to an iceberg and finally, as though drunk [ubbrioso] and exhausted by the conflict staggers away’, like a character gradually leaving the stage, bowed but ultimately undefeated—a state of being (and resilience) to which Nielsen himself could relate, following one of the most turbulent periods in his life.
from notes by Daniel Grimley © 2008