Variations on "The Carnival of Venice" (2011 )
for flute and guitar
duration: 11'


Commissioned by the Cavatina Duo

First Performance: The Cavatina Duo, 6th Nov. 2011, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, Illinois, USA.

Recordings: Cavatina Duo "Cavatina at the Opera" (Bridge Records)

To purchase the score/parts, please go to my Gumroad shop page

Programme Note

The melody known as the "Carnival of Venice" has been used by numerous composers as the basis for variation sets. Among the most significant versions are pieces by Paganini (for violin), Chopin (piano), Arban (trumpet), Briccialdi (flute), and Tarrega (solo guitar). Each of these uses this simple tune and its very simple harmonies as a springboard for a pyrotechnical display of the scales, arpeggios, trills and tricks that feature the instrument at its virtuosic best. While the melody of Paganini's 24th Caprice (to take another example which has been extensively used as a theme for variation sets) has qualities of virtuosity and harmonic tension built into it from the start, the "Carnival of Venice" melody is almost comical in its simplicity and lack of tension and pretension. But perhaps it is this quality that makes it so useful for pure exuberant displays of instrumental prowess.

The Cavatina Duo initially commissioned me to make an arrangement more or less combining the famous flute and guitar versions of the "Carnival" (those by Briccialdi and Tarrega). While I have indeed used large portions of these two works in various combinations and forms, I have also added a substantial amount of new material of my own (as well as throwing in the odd quote from other celebrated carnival-related pieces). The piece is therefore a sort of "re-composition", combining existing works and original composition to create a new take on an old chestnut.

After an extended introduction derived from Tarrega (which in fact the great guitarist stole from an opera by Julius Benedict!), the "Carnival of Venice" theme is introduced by the guitar and then taken up by the flute. From there the composition is really a kind of virtuoso dialogue between the two instruments in five variations of ever-increasing speed and complexity. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Variation 3 is an extended interlude which introduces a programmatic element, as I attempted to musically depict some of the stock characters of the Italian carnival or commedia dell'arte. The guitar imitates a military drum as Rugantino the gendarme enters the scene, only to be cruelly mocked by Harlequin (the clown). Harlequin's girlfriend Columbina then appears with her lovely waltz version of the theme, followed by the grumpy and complaining miser Pantalone as the music turns to a minor key. Finally, all is put into perspective by the happy-go-lucky hedonist Pulcinella as the music returns to the "Carnival" theme in the last two variations, followed by a coda which shifts the music into overdrive leading to an appropriately big finish.

The piece is dedicated to the Cavatina Duo.