Ponce's Variations for Guitar
Peter Kun Frary, Professor of Music • University of Hawaii, Leeward
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 Introduction

All three of Ponce's sets of variations are based on the techniques of the eighteenth-century sectional variation form: a theme is simply stated; a number of variations ensue, largely of the melodic type with fixed harmony; and a fugue or a developmental finale provides a conclusive summing up. Lik e most eighteenth-century variation sets, Ponce's variation sets are organized in a succession of self-contained variations which do not normally have transitions between them. Although these works utilize similar approaches to formal organization, they exemplify two separate stylistic stages in Ponce's career. Variations sur >>Folia de España<< et Fugue and Thème varié et Finale, written during the 1920s, intermingle impressionistic and neoromantic techniques in a virtuosic manner, and are strongly evocative of Hispanic folklore. Variaciones sobre un tema de Antonio de Cabezón, written in 1948 during Ponce's final months of life, is emotionally and technically reserved, and is wholly neoclassical in style.

Manuel Maria Ponce (1882-1948)

A short musical description and pertinent information concerning composition and publication will be included for all items surveyed. Each work will be graded according to level of technical difficulty on a one to ten scale: 1-2: very easy; 3-4: moderately easy; 5-6: moderately difficult; 7-8: difficult; and 9-10: very difficult. Musical examples are based on the edition listed first under each composition. All works are dedicated to Andrés Segovia unless otherwise noted.

Thème varié et finale. Edited by Andrés Segovia. Mainz: Schott, 1928.

Timing: 10'

Grade: 8

This set of variations was composed in Paris during 1926 and is one of Ponce's most often performed guitar solos. The formal design consists of an original theme, six variations and a finale. Although most of the variations differ slightly in length from the theme, all of them utilize the same formal structure of A A B. The theme, five of the variations and the finale are built around the tonal center of E, probably to allow idiomatic use of the open strings. Moreover, with the exception of Variation VI, in E major, and Variation III, in C major, this work is predominately in E minor modes such as E aeolian and E dorian. Most of the variations follow the basic harmony of the theme and, to achieve contrast, develop a particular rhythmic or melodic pattern. Although the title does not suggest nationalism, this work is highly evocative of popular Latin American music. Impressionistic harmonies predominate in this work.

The theme, set in triple meter and predominantly in the modality of E aeolian, features a fragmented melodic structure and serves mainly to provide a harmonic and formal basis for the variations. The harmonic progression is typical of Latin American popular music; however, decorative dissonance is often utilized to create color. For example, the harmonic progression of the first four measures is i ivø7 VII+ III7 (E aeolian):

Ex. 45. Thème varié et finale, Theme, p. 2, mm. 1-4

The altered harmonic tones, the appoggiaturas on the ivø7 and III7 chords and the ornaments create colorful yet delicate tonal shadings.

The first variation, in 3/4 meter and marked Allegro appassionato, follows the basic harmony and melodic contour of the theme. The variation technique is based on a repeated rhythmic figure played in block chords:

Ex. 46. Thème varié et finale, Variation I, p. 2, mm. 1-4

Variation II, marked Molto moderato, is in C major and 3/4 meter. The mood is lyrical and subdued. Piano markings predominate in this variation. Although the formal structure and basic melodic outline of the theme are retained, the highly chromatic harmony and the call and response texture of this variation provide an engaging contrast. The motive echoed between the bass and soprano is derived from the thirty-second note ornament in the first measure of the theme:

Ex. 47. Thème varié et finale, Variation II, p. 2, mm. 1-4

The third variation, in 2/4 meter and marked Allegro moderato, is based a three-note sixteenth note pattern harmonized largely in thirds:

Ex. 48. Thème varié et finale, Variation III, p. 3, mm. 1-3

Although the harmonization in parallel thirds is evocative of popular Mexican song, the repetitive and syncopated rhythmic pattern, chromaticism and disjunct style give this rather conventional harmonization an unusual twist.

Variation IV, in 6/8 meter and marked Agitato, is based on a five-note melodic pattern characterized by tied notes on the third and sixth beats:

Ex. 49. Thème varié et finale, Variation IV. p. 3, mm. 1-4

Syncopations and the slurring of notes on the second and fifth beats give this variation an anxious and unsettled air.

The fifth variation, in 3/4 meter and marked Vivace, is full of Latin American fire with its rolled chords and rapid scales and ornaments. Again, much of the unity of the variation depends on the use of a rhythmic pattern established in the first measure:

Ex. 50. Thème varié et finale, Variation V, p. 4, mm. 1-4

The sixth and final variation, set in 2/4 meter and marked Molto più lento, is gentle and subdued and features piano markings throughout. The texture is in three distinct parts--soprano, bass and inner voice--and is nostalgic of a Mexican canción:

Ex. 51. Thème varié et finale, Variation VI, p. 4, mm. 1-4

The finale, marked Vivo scherzando and in 3/8 meter, is a conclusive summing up of this work and is the most difficult section of this work to perform. Not limited to one type of figuration, motives from the preceding variations are developed in a sonata-like fashion. Cast in the form of A B A' coda, the finale begins with a phrase related to the second beat of m. 1 in the theme and the opening motive of the second variation:

Ex. 52. Thème varié et finale, Finale, p. 4, mm. 1-4

Impressionistic colors and nonfunctional harmony are often heard in alternation with more conventional sounds. For example, quartal chords connected by glissandi are heard immediately following a passage of common practice harmony at m. 19. Although the use of changing accent patterns are common in this piece, the most striking occurrence is in the B section of the finale where chords voiced in fifths and in 3/8 meter alternate with chords in a 3/4 accent pattern:

Ex. 53. Thème varié et finale, Finale, p. 5, mm. 51-58

The metric changes serve to accentuate the already dazzling sonority of the open chord voicings and nonfunctional harmony of this passage.

A rhythmic pattern related to the fourth variation appears at m. 61, and, after some development of this motive and others, the A section is recapitulated in abbreviated form. At m. 149 motives from the fifth variation appear, and at m. 163 the coda begins with two repetitions of the first phrase of the fifth variation in the tonic. Motives from this phrase are developed to produced a frenzied and colorful ending to this highly successful work. Although the entire piece is permeated with an aura of Latin American popular music, the improvisational character of the last few measures and final chord of E major seventh (E major-major) are especially evocative of this style.

©Copyright 2001-2016 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved

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