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1975, the time for Variations...

This work was commissioned by the Concerts Pasdeloup in 1975, Beethoven Year, when many concerts celebrated the great German musician. To pay his own tribute to him while refusing to compose a Beethovenesque piece, Georges Delerue started with the name "Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN".

Delerue associated letters from the German alphabet with notes of music, and his work took the form of some very free variations. Composers of the past have worked according to the same principle, notably using the letters B-A-C-H, a name frequently occurring in works by Schoenberg or Webern. Finding his own title rather hermetic, Georges Delerue explained its origins…

"I've always felt very reticent towards an analysis of my compositions; because, between what you decide to write, and what you do write, there's always a privileged moment when you're no longer really yourself, and your thoughts take off in a rather different direction…

And that's where it all happens: that's where you have to let yourself be carried away and, at the same time, know how to stay in control.

I think that was obvious for Beethoven: his freedom in form, even language, didn't prevent him from controlling his creative thought with a great deal of rigour.

In Vienna, one of his teachers Albrechtsberger, an organist at Court and the cathedral's Kapellmeister called his pupil an 'excited musical free-thinker.' I really liked the way he judged Beethoven, who was a great defender of freedom as we all know, and so it was quite naturally that I wrote these "free variations".

At the beginning, the chord struck by the whole orchestra gives the listener all the notes which make up the name Ludwig Van Beethoven, and the introduction is over. Then there's an episode where the orchestra hammers out the name Ludwig van Beethoven, very 'marcato'. The strings continue with the same rhythm, and then the woodwinds develop one of the cells of the theme; wind- and string-alternations appear, often to be found in Beethoven. And then 'Ludwig van' appears in augmentation from the contrabass players, while other strings playing pizzicato make you hear a melodic development based on the name Beethoven – the tempo still allegro – followed by a new marriage of woodwinds and pizzicato strings.

Another variation then comes in with the strings stating the name Beethoven very broadly, and then the harp, celesta and vibraphone make themselves heard; next, it's the turn of the brass instruments to appear violently, forming a cluster which allows the winds and strings to vehemently proclaim the notes of the theme; then everything falls away and we come to a sort of calm and tranquil meditation, yet the kind of calm which makes you fear a coming storm… that same apparent, non-submissive calm which you see when you look at the death mask of Ludwig van Beethoven."


Here Georges Delerue reveals a piece which oscillates between the atonal and the polytonal, using very dissonant, resolutely modern harmonies.


Abstraction, evolution and progression …

The first movement begins with a brief introduction from the woodwinds, with very furtive, almost mysterious notes. Beneath the notes played by these instruments, an initial theme is then developed by the strings, playing longer notes. Right from the beginning, a deliberate feverishness is installed by the instruments; the harmonies remain dissonant from beginning to end, with very elaborate contrapuntal writing, like the winds' entry in a canon at the beginning of the piece.  

If the theme is easily noticeable right from the very first bars, the music which follows is much more complex, with Delerue blurring the trail with polytonal harmonization and very dense orchestral writing; the melody is often entrusted to the strings, playing long notes overlaid by a flood of higher notes and breves from the winds. Here the composer opts for very straightforward, organized musical structure.

Among the traditional variation-effects used by the musician you can hear changes in the instruments and other nuances or modified rhythms.

A few examples of the more classical variations heard in the work can be noted here: a reprise of the theme in quick notes from the winds after a first statement in longer notes, or quite simply a superposition of the theme with long/short notes.

 After these first agitated developments the piece acquires a temporary calm, and the instruments now seem to organize themselves in a different way: the woodwinds continue to twirl their short, fleeting notes in the upper register while the composer resorts to a series of very rapid pizzicati before taking up the melody with the strings, to which he adds notes from the harp and vibraphone in counterpoint. The brass instruments have more presence in the latter part of the piece, playing clusters, harmonies based on fifths/parallel fourths, and dissonances that are misty although never chaotic. Beneath this musical aggressiveness Delerue preserves a certain lyricism through his use of the strings, and shows no hesitation in confiding the melody to them.

In this way, a certain ambiguity reigns throughout these Variations. With their sudden bursts of musical energy, you don't know whether the music really intends to be aggressive and exasperated, or if, on the contrary, its intentions are lyrical and more dramatic. One thing is certain, however: whether the framework he chose was tonal or atonal, Georges Delerue preserved the underlying lyricism in his music, a lyricism that was profoundly his own.



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