Geroge Szell, Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 4

By Richard Wilson

Written for the concert Making Music: Composer-Conductors, performed on Feb 9, 2007 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

George Andreas Szell was born in Budapest on June 7, 1897 and died in Cleveland on July 30, 1970. Growing up in Vienna, he studied music theory and composition with Eusebius Mandyczewski, J. B. Foerster, and Max Reger. Along with Rudolf Serkin and Clara Haskil, he became a piano student of Richard Robert. Szell made his professional piano debut at age eleven in a concert of his own compositions. On a tour at that same age, which led him to England, he was called “the next Mozart” by the Daily Mail—to which, in later life, Szell retorted: “Anyone can make a mistake.” Mistake or not, at age fourteen, he was signed to a ten-year exclusive publishing contract with Universal Edition in Vienna. When he was sixteen and vacationing with his parents in a summer resort, the local orchestral conductor injured his arm, prompting Szell to take over. In a moment of life-changing significance, he did so with remarkable success. At seventeen he made his debut in Berlin as pianist, composer, and conductor. The following year, he was chosen by Richard Strauss to join the staff of the Berlin Staatsoper. With successive posts in Prague, Darmstadt, Düsseldorf, and again in Berlin, Szell launched a career that would reach its highpoint in Cleveland, where he led that city’s orchestra from 1946 until his death, elevating it to world status. His activities as composer evidently ceased a few years after his apprenticeship with Strauss.

George Szell’s Variations on an Original Theme was composed in 1913. The theme, a gavotte, exhibits a simple and memorable melody; but its harmonization presents many surprises. Key changes from A to C to D-flat suggest the influence of Richard Strauss at his slipperiest, most flirtatious harmonic behavior.

Eleven variations ensue. Most reflect the binary phrase construction of the theme, with tempo as the key to the overall form. The relaxed opening speeds up through Variations Two and Three to reach a rapid pace in Four, Five, and Six which together form a unit. Variation Five is the free inversion of Four, and Six begins as a complete reprise of Four, then continues for nearly thirty bars of fresh material. After a clear pause (the first since the end of Variation Two), we hear with Variation Seven an explicit change of character: slow pace, triple rather than duple meter, legato rather than staccato style. The melody derives from the third, fourth, and fifth notes of the theme taken in reverse (retrograde) order. Variation Eight retains the slow tempo and triple meter. Nine is suddenly fast: a tarantella. Ten is again slow, with a move to the key of C-sharp minor. From this, the final variation emerges. It is back in the home key of A with the theme clearly stated. This variation is longer than all the rest and moves through a series of accelerations to a lively ending.

In addition to an entirely convincing formal design, the work exhibits a mastery of orchestration (note especially the exquisite use of horns in Variation Eight), doubly impressive in a teenage composer.