Lachenmann wrote these variations in 1956, in what was then West Germany, and this was his first published work. The idea of opus numbers was not fashionable at the time and thus no opus number exists. Lachenmann’s quoted theme is that of Schubert’s waltz in C sharp minor D643. The harmonies of this theme change relatively quickly and Lachenmann pushes them in his 5 variations to chromaticism, without hugely deviating from the tonic key. Lachenmann makes use of serialist techniques by isolating certain rhythmic idioms and emphasising them individually, where they would have existed simultaneously in Schubert’s original work. Written in the techniques of Schoenberg and Stravinsky Lachenmann’s variations remain faithful to the dance-like nature of the theme.
After the statement of the initial theme variation 1, marked “rasch” (rapidly) suddenly interrupts with the triplet movement characteristic of this variation. It is extremely effective due its complete juxtaposition with the mood of the opening theme, Variation 2 is marked “Ruhig” (quiet) and again brings about a completely different atmosphere. It opens with an expressive legato line which works its way towards a brief “poco scherzando” motif, all in keeping with the general calmer atmosphere of this variation. Variation 3 takes off at a flying tempo marked”sehr lebhaft” ( very lively) “molto martell” ( very marked hammered). It passes by in an instant and besides the constant marcato quavers, the displaced barlines give a very syncopated effect. Varaition 4, marked “Schwungvoll” (sweeping) continues with the molto forte nature of variation 3 but this time in accentuated chordal movement. The dynamic climax of the piece is reached with fff accentuated chords before the final phrase is simply thrown off. Variation 5, marked “Sehr ruhig und ausdrucksvoll” (very queit and expressive) is very minimalist. The per bar dotted minum chord changes contain a sparse staccato quaver figure. The general dynamic is maintained within p/pp except for the odd subito sfz chord. The final ringing harmonic, marked “als Oberton klingen lassen” (creating overtones) and ppp bass note disappear into silence.
In a conversation with Gene Coleman, Lachenmann describes his music as “musique concrete instrumentale”, his own explanation of which was “[music] in which the sound events are chosen and organised so that the manner in which they are generated is at least as important as the resultant acoustic qualities themselves. Consequently those qualities, such as timbre, volume, and so on do not produce sounds for their own sake, but describe or denote the concrete situation. Listening you hear the conditions under which a sound – or – noise is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered”. Lachenamnn has embraced many unconventional playing techniques through his vision of “musique concrete instrumentale”. It is interesting to consider the compositional journey that Lachenmann has undergone as these set of variations, his first published work, do not contain a huge amount of unconventional playing techniques (with the exception of some harmonics). Of this work he himself said “Resistance to tradition is not yet pronounced here, insofar as its categories as ruling conventions are subject to the previously mentioned bourgeois mechanisms of repression”.