Somervell calls this work symphonic variations, and although the music plays continuously, consisting of successive free variations, listeners will soon be aware of a shadowy outline of what we might consider a four-movement symphony: introduction and Allegro—slow movement—scherzo—finale. The ‘Normandy’ of the title refers to the French village of Varengeville-sur-Mer, near Dieppe, where the tune was collected well before the First World War. Just eight bars long, the theme consists of four groups of two bars, each ending with two falling minims, a structure which provides Somervell with a succession of varied opportunities for free fantasias based on five short motifs taken from the tune.
The music opens dramatically with grave chords from the brass (actually elements of the theme which is to follow) before the piano plays the first four bars of the theme echoed by the horns. It is repeated and followed by the last four bars, given the same treatment. The whole is then sung by the oboe. This introduction develops with virtuoso writing for the soloist and eventually fades with the motif from the last bar of the tune which leads to the Molto allegro, which has a first movement feel to it. This is worked over many bars and eventually reaches what feels like a lyrical second subject, in fact developed from the falling minims which punctuate the theme. We reach a slower section leading to a solemn Adagio intoned by the brass, and eventually the opening bar of the theme is drummed out to announce the scherzo section, complete with trio derived from the theme. The finale, Allegro ma non troppo, is heralded with rising arpeggios in the piano punctuated by explosive chords at the end of each bar. A ground bass of chromatically slowly rising notes underpins this finale, generating a sequence of short variations within a variation. The music grows to a grand climax and the tune, now glowing on full orchestra, brings the music to an exultant close.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 2011