This article is written to introduce my solo guitar work Theme and Variations for Guitar Solo (2015-2016, rev. 2019) and to explain some of the methods I use in my compositions.
Theme and Variations for Guitar Solo was my first considerable work during my composition studies in Sibelius Academy. Composing a set of variations to an original theme is a regular composition exercise in SibA, and I would say that most of the BA-level composition students over there have composed a work like this.
I was advised by my composition teacher Lauri Kilpiö to write a work for an instrument that I was familiar with. I have a past as a guitar player, and due to this, the guitar seemed like a natural choice. Before getting into the actual process of composing the work, I was encouraged by my composition teacher to study the Händel-variations op. 24 by Brahms as an example of a work set in the theme and variations-medium. Consequently, in the early stages of composing this piece, Brahms’s work was a big influence. Another source of inspiration was Benjamin Britten’s excellent Nocturnal after John Dowland, which is a work I used to practice a lot when I was playing the guitar actively.
I finished the initial work by the winter of 2016. The original version consisted of a theme, 12 variations and a finale. In January of 2019, I decided to revise the work slightly. The revised version has one new variation (no. 12, replacing another variation), an intermezzo, and other small adjustments here and there, mainly concerning dynamics, tempo, phrasing and so on. The original version was recorded by guitarist Ossi Näveri, but no public performance before this Saturday’s Kitara Nova-concert exists.
The theme in my work is a kind of general-lyrical/expressive melody with simple accompaniment (Fig. 1). I wanted the theme to be very ‘classical’ in its phrasing and overall narrative. To achieve this, I constructed the theme in a traditional way: the opening measures comprise a somewhat regular sentence-form, and the theme as a whole suggests a quasi ABA-structure. My variant of the sentence-form appears as follows: mm . 1-2 forms the A-phrase, mm. 3-4 the B-phrase. Measures 5 and 6 are compressed versions of those phrases and measure 7-8 the ‘cadence’. Measures 8-11 form a calmer and ‘developing’ part of the theme, and finally measures 12-14 the final ‘cadence’, which is based on the material encountered at the beginning of the theme. Thus, mm. 1-8 constitutes the A-part, mm. 8-11 B-part and mm. 12-14 some kind of return to A. This constitutes a narrative that is built upon two ascends in terms of intensity and register, namely the ‘cadences’ of measures 8 and 14. Out of these ‘cadences’ the latter one has more intense and final feel to it and thus it represents the most active part of the theme. Figure 2 demonstrates my interpretation of how levels of intensity/activity construct the expressive narrative of the theme. I often make visualizations like this when I’m developing a work to get a sense of where the work is going and whether my compositional choices are creating a meaningful dialogue with the listener.
Figure 1 – the theme
Figure 2 – Diagram mapping the level of intensity/activity in the theme
After the theme, 12 variations and an intermezzo follows. The variations in the work are all textural variants, showing how many different ways this theme can be perceived. The initial structure and the expressive narrative of the theme are preserved in every variation without much alterations. If I were to write this work today, I would probably try experimenting more with the different parameters the theme offers and make more departures from it.
The intermezzo and the last variation (no.12) start to hint at the material of the finale. Both the intermezzo and the final variation were composed in January 2019. The finale has elements taken from the theme but used in a new manner. It also features entirely new material. However, at the end of the variation, the work returns to the original theme and closes the work.
Composing a set of variations to an original theme was one of the most useful experiences during my composition studies. Working with a theme that was filtered through multiple textural variants taught me how to work with limited material, and how I could make the most out of it. Even though I haven’t composed another set of theme and variations since then, composing with minimal amount of material has become an integral part of my compositional language.
Pekka Koivisto (b. 1988) is a Helsinki-based composer and a music teacher.