John McCabe Sam Variations (1989)
For violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano
Deciso - Vivo - Allegro marcato - Quasi recitativo/Vivo/Lento - Vivace - Allegro moderato e marcatissimo - Lento
The title is perhaps a bit misleading, since it is far from being a standard set of theme and variations but rather a free series of movements played continuously, with all the material derived directly from a specific theme which underlies the whole work.
This is the title theme for a TV series Sam, which I wrote in the early 1970s, and when I was asked to write this piece I thought it would nice to pay tribute to Schubert by using as the basis for the work (or, in his case, part of the work) a theme that already existed in another context, just as he used one of his songs for a movement in his Trout Quintet, written for the same combination of instruments. However, in Sam Variations the actual theme itself is never heard direct - the nearest we get to hearing it is in the rather enigmatic coda, when snatches of it are heard in (particularly) violin and viola. But all the material of the work is taken directly from the theme and transformed in a variation-like way, so the title is not completely inapt.
Most of the music is fast or fast-ish, and forms a series of character pieces (as most sets of variations do, of course). The opening string flourishes act as a kind of ritornello, though immensely varied on each return, and only twice is the tempo reduced to that of a slow movement. The first time is for a section that combines three variations in one: a recitative-like phrase on the double bass, a quick, dance-like figure on violin and viola which combines with this, and by contrast a brief snatch of arioso on cello and piano. The only other slow tempo is for the coda, which sets fragments of the theme (including a final chorale treatment) against gently pulsating repeated patterns in piano and bass.
© John McCabe
Sam Variations was commissioned by the Schubert Ensemble, to whom it is dedicated and who gave the first performance in June 1989 at the Wigmore Hall, London.