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Variations on a well-known theme

May to June 1976; composed for the BBC; variations in the styles of Mozart to Prokofiev on the theme Happy birthday

The English composer, radio presenter, pianist, conductor, author and lecturer Antony Hopkins CBE (born 1921) gave me a copy of his Variations on a well-known theme several years back, thinking I may find it useful at the Newport Music Festival, Rhode Island, where I was a frequent performer at the time. His name had been a bit of a legend to me when I was growing up. His lectures at the Royal College of Music were the only ones my parents never missed as students. His radio programme Talking about music, broadcast for thirty-six years on the BBC Transcription Service, made his distinctive voice internationally recognizable. His many books of musical analysis and perception promoted understanding in witty and wonderful ways. Above all he communicated the joy of music to thousands for decades. He has called himself a sort of musical odd-job man, because of his flair for producing what was needed at any time, often with a minimum of time available to do it in. He has composed operas, ballets, incidental music for radio and theatre, film music, including Here come the Huggetts (1948), The Pickwick Papers (1952), Cast a dark shadow (1955) and Billy Budd (1962), chamber works and of course pieces for piano. The Variations on a well-known theme was originally written between May and July 1976 for a BBC television programme to demonstrate the styles of various composers. Antony Hopkins says of this piece: ‘It may be seen as a sort of journey through the ages. In the process of writing the variations, I became so fascinated by the exercise in pastiche that I expanded them into what I hope will prove an entertaining concert piece.’

The theme, Happy birthday, is never actually stated: the television programme could only be fourteen minutes long and the variations themselves left no extra space for it to be added. It isn’t necessary anyway—its presence is felt, melodically or harmonically, in almost every bar of the piece. The composers who enter and exit form quite a Who’s Who in the music world. The opening variations are dedicated to Mozart, building them up the way Mozart himself does in his many sets of variations. There is a touching nod to the C minor Piano Concerto K491 and a graceful 6/8 variation that perhaps triggers memories of the Sonata in A major K331. Beethoven eventually enters with hushed Adagio chords, like the slow movement of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata Op 57—and he hangs around for the next three variations, with more than a passing nod to the Sonata in A major Op 101. Mendelssohn makes a brief and capricious entrance, lost in Midsummer Night Dreams, but is soon joined by Robert Schumann for a march in Études symphoniques style, which rhythmically (and appositely) ties in with the earlier Beethoven scherzando. Brahms, naturally enough, follows Schumann in two variations that contrast his lyrical style—remembered from parts of the Ballades, Rhapsodies and Intermezzi—with the grand chordal sweep of the final variation from his towering Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op 24. The touching simplicity of Chopin’s A major Prelude is recalled, but also the majestic rhythms of the Polonaise Op 53, before Liszt improvises unmistakeably on a motif from the original theme, as in the lassan of a Hungarian Rhapsody. He tinkles and trills as he does in La campanella, makes life difficult for pianists, as in the fiendish Malédiction for piano and strings, declaims in a Wagnerian way, as in his transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod, or rockets off as in his first Piano Concerto. But he doesn’t get the final say. That is reserved for Prokofiev, in Op 11 Toccata mode. The variations cover about as much history as the nonagenarian Hopkins himself! Well, perhaps a bit more …

from notes by Piers Lane © 2013


Piers Lane goes to town
Studio Master: CDA67967Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track-specific metadata for CDA67967 track 17

Recording date
8 June 2012
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Rachel Smith
Recording engineer
Ben Connellan
Hyperion usage
  1. Piers Lane goes to town (CDA67967)
    Disc 1 Track 17
    Release date: September 2013
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