Today we’re going to look at the most abstract of the variations – Variation 2: Aggressive. For this one, I have put the pdf and the mp3 here at the top so that you can listen first and try to figure out what is going on:

At first glance/listen, this may seem a very strange variation with little to no connection to the Sousa, but actually it is very carefully constructed from just one motive:

The easiest way to see this is in the harmony. If you look at measure 86, you can see two chords (ignoring the original note) – one of them is quite crunchy, and the other is a 9th chord (D9) – I’ve gathered them in the example below:

So the crunchy chord (which derives from stuff in the beginning) and the 9th chord (which comes from the Sousa in Figure 1 – F-A-C-[Eb]-G is just transposed down to D-F#-A-C-E) are played by the quintet in alternation throughout this variation. Sometimes I shift things around, but we always return to these two chords (although the “Crunchy” chord gets transposed up a third by the end – the intervals remain the same, though). From a harmonic viewpoint, it’s the simplest variation by far.

Rhythm is the real driving force behind this part of the piece, and it follows a similarly simple pattern that is derived from that Sousa fragment. If you count the eighth notes of that pattern, you get 3,2,1,3,3,9. Now look at measure 86 again…we can see that the notes are grouped by that pattern (first a group of 3, then 2, then 1…etc.). The harmony changes from the first to the second chord and back each time the group changes. After we go through once, I started to combine two at a time. Starting at measure 89, we have a set of 5 (3+2), then 4 (1+3), then 12 (3+9). Math is fun! Why did I do that, though…why not keep going with the original pattern? I decided, after the very aggressive and quickly changing first cycle, to give the listener a little more time to digest the two chords, and to give myself the opportunity for more breathing space in terms of dynamics and pitch alterations. It is no coincidence that the chords start moving within the groupings there.

After that second set, which ends in measure 92, I combine again, starting with 6 (3+2+1), then 7 (1+3+3), then 15 (3+3+9). Again, the patterns are being lengthened, and I’m playing with the pitches of the chords more extensively. The next section is interesting because I made a mistake when I was writing it (that I ended up keeping because I liked it). If you look at the second trumpet part in measure 98, the groupings seem to be 3+2+3+9. I started using alternating numbers to dictate the number of rests…but I used 2 twice. I think that this goes to show that, while sets and sequences and rules can be interesting, sometimes what comes from (inadvertently) breaking the rules can be advantageous.

The five instruments are also staggered during this section, so you get a nice interplay of crescendos and accents throughout (and they, combined with the order of the entrances of the instruments, give this section its shape and color). It suffers a bit of a breakdown in measure 108, where individual notes pop out of the texture thanks to accents that don’t follow the rhythmic pattern, and this leads into the last section.

Here (measure 110), the quintet regroups and alternates (maybe I should title this variation “Alternating Aggression” instead) between a burst of sound, and a rhythmically dense and complicated sounding cluster, which proves too complex for what has been a very eighth-note oriented variation and leads to a complete dissolution…leaving only a D-C# alternation (again!) in the first trumpet. That D-C# could easily lead into the theme (it is how it begins, after all), but instead leads into every composer’s favorite go-to contrapuntal device…the fugue!

I’ll talk about it (and the chorale that bookends the theme) next time! Please comment and let me know what you think – I’m interested in whether knowing about the numeric underpinning of the variation makes it more or less interesting to listen to!

PS – I’m trying to come up with a name that is an anagram of Washington Post and sounds sort of whimsical. What I have so far is:

Awnings Hotspot, Tango Townships, Whatnots Posing, Wingspans Tooth. Leave me a comment and let me know which one you favor (or a completely different one…) – let’s crowdsource this title!!