A single fateful day in 1963 provided for us (at great cost) the reference points for two of Igor Stravinsky's last instrumental compositions: the Elegy for J.F.K and the orchestral Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam, both of whose dedicatees passed away on November 22 of that year. Unlike the Elegy that Stravinsky composed for the assassinated president, however, the Variations was a work already in progress when Stravinsky learned of the death of Huxley; although the writer had been a very close friend of the composer since the late 1940s, the work cannot rightly be said to convey a truly funereal sense. It is instead full of energy and vitality -- a lofty celebration of the refined polyphony that infuses all of Stravinsky's serial compositions, taken, however, to such an extreme point of abstraction and concentration that very few listeners (or, for that matter, players) at the 1965 premiere (Chicago Symphony, Robert Craft conducting) could make heads or tails of the piece. Yet this difficulty -- this emphasis on an almost sublime kind of structural detail -- was surely one of Stravinsky's purposes in composing the piece. These variations thus stand in stark contrast to the comparatively accessible vocal and narrative works of his later years.
The variations are not made on any specific theme, but rather on a twelve-tone row that informs every level of the musical construction (the emphasis on units of twelve penetrates right down to meter and instrumentation, as we shall see). This row, in its basic form, is first given to us during the single-line melodies heard during the work's opening passage, played by a colorful and continually changing palette of instruments.
After this initial expository portion, the piece divides quite clearly into six main sections of music, the second, fourth, and sixth of which are all built by setting various forms of the tone-row (achieved using the usual inversion and retrograde options) against a recurrent, twelve-pulse metric pattern: 4/8 - 3/8 - 5/8. During each of those three centrally-important sections, a total of twelve instruments are used to create the kind of contrapuntal and polyrhythmic density that Stravinsky himself, in a program note written for the Chicago premiere, called the "main innovation of the work." During the first of these sections (section two, in other words) we have twelve violins, played sul ponticello; the second features ten violas and two string basses (using a similarly shimmering texture as the violins), and the last a group of twelve winds.
Around and between these three main bodies of the work (each of which, just to pound in the idea of twelve further, contains four statements of the twelve-pulse metric unit, for a grand total of twelve statements) are placed three less strictly defined sections. Over the course of these freer episodes the oboe gets a lyric solo, pizzicato strings and staccato pianoforte offer sharp hammerstrokes, the string section shoots off on a fugal use of the tone-row, and -- in an appropriately reticent ending -- the final chord gives way to a solo G sharp in the bass clarinet.