Theme and variations

2013-04-02 17:53

Music tends to rely heavily on the use of recognizable themes; little bits and pieces of melody and/or rhythm which are repeated to create consistency in structure. In the simplest form, a theme may simply be repeated. The “rounds” often used in early music classes add the complexity that each part may be at a different point in the theme than the others, but all the parts are still the same. The famous example is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, a piece of music which still has the power to enthrall children up through the age of seven or so, but tends to pale a little after that.

What really makes themes interesting, to me, is that they are subject to variation. You don’t just play the exact same melody over and over; rather, you start seeing different presentations of the theme, pieces of it taken individually, or presented in a different order. Changes in key, changes in progression, notes added and removed.

And this leads to one of my favorite forms of music, the fugue. I love me some fugues. My favorite ever is the Little G Minor fugue (link is to a video showing the MIDI notes in color and space rather than in musical notation; this can be really helpful if you want to visualize what’s happening).

Now, here’s the thing. If you were to take the main theme of that piece, and just repeat it a lot, you would not end up with nearly as awesome a piece of music. The inclusion of things which are not the theme, and especially of things which are similar to the theme but not quite identical, is not some sort of newbie error. Bach did that to highlight and strengthen the theme.

So, where am I going with this? When you have a clear theme or pattern, it is easy to identify when something does not quite follow the theme, and then easy to assert that this is an error; that one has “failed” to follow the theme. And I am arguing that it’s not necessarily an error, or a failure to conform. It may be a variation, intended to reflect, and highlight, and support that theme.

I occasionally encounter people who insist that, for instance, marriage which does not fit a particular model of “traditional” marriage (roughly as practiced in the US in the 1950s, only with more divorce), is a “deviation” from God’s Plan for Marriage. And I don’t believe that, because I don’t think God writes plans with all the subtlety of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that there is a Divine Plan of “marriage” which is one man, and one woman, who are married until one of them dies. What should we make of all the other things we see, which are similar enough to be recognizable, but not quite exactly fitting that theme? Are they “deviations” from that? Not always, certainly. Sometimes, they are variations on that. They are things which, while different from the theme, reflect the theme’s essential character. They are things which allow people who might otherwise be outside the plan’s scope to find that they are in the plan after all.

So when people get divorced, the Plan is that they are done — they have failed at marriage, and it’s over. Indeed, the Catholic Church still won’t perform a marriage for someone who’s been divorced, in general; you have to get an annullment declaring that you were definitely not actually married before. And many people do feel that remarriage is in some way invalid. But our society, as a whole, has come to think that letting people remarry after a divorce is not such a bad thing. It’s not exactly the same as the original marriage, but it’s a fundamentally similar thing, so similar that we call it by the same name and give it the same legal and social treatment, in general. It serves the same role in our society. Perhaps more importantly, it draws people in and includes them.

Our society is starting to recognize that the same principle applies to marriages with two men, or two women, instead of one of each. They may not be identical to the form we’re most familiar with, but they are clearly related to it and built on it. With rare exceptions, even people vehemently opposed to legal recognition of these relationships seem to acknowledge that life-long committed romantic relationships between two men or two women are fundamentally similar to marriage, arguing only that they are defective in a way which should exclude them from legal recognition. But the fact is, they aren’t defective. They are not deviations from the theme; they are variations on it. They may differ in some ways from the theme, but they reflect it and harmonize well with it. They make our culture and our world richer. They are a new voice joining the fugue, revealing that what seemed like a complete and coherent whole had still more space for additions which contributed depth and vibrance to the experience.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. This makes me happy. Bach is happy math, and this is an excellent analogy. That is all.

    — Tegan · 2013-04-04 16:06 · #

 
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