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I introduced Elliott Schwartz to readers of Music & Vision on 18 June 2000 [CD Spotlight -- Equinox], where I covered a number of his available CDs. His Bellagio Variations date from 1980 when he spent a period of residence at the Rockefeller Study and Conference Center next to Lake Como in Italy. Schwartz's output is varied and for many years he has composed to international commissions with an enviable fluency. He is regularly in England and as early as 1964 published a book on Vaughan Williams' symphonies [Da Capo reprint 1981]. This interest shows through in the Bellagio Variations which, for me, represent a much more convincing way of accommodating our musical past and present than Rochberg's 45-minute epic. Schwartz's continuity of discontinuity is realistic, not only in the way we use mechanical media but also in the tradition of fragmentary scores by Webern and Cage. Whilst he was at Bellagio, Schwartz discovered a piano piece by his old teacher, Otto Luening, called The Bells of Bellagio. He based his work partly on this piece and on connections with other music. Schwartz admits to using Mahler and Beethoven -- like Rochberg -- then a Bowdoin College football fight song and an early flute sonata of his own. Most of us have little chance of identifying these last two sources.

The Bellagio Variations were written for the Portland Quartet, based in Maine where Schwartz has taught at Bowdoin College since 1964, and they were recorded in 1991 by the Jennings Quartet (a mixed-composer CD on GM Recordings GM2041CD). The Variations play with our associations but in a subtle way so that nothing is blatant and the references are likely to arouse different echoes in different listeners. The layout is a theme and eight variations, but Schwartz's technique of constant reference starts at once and the perfect fourth is important -- Schubert's Unfinished or the opening of Act 3 of Berg's Wozzeck at this pitch? We might have been given a little more detail in the CD notes but the Beethoven references include the Prometheus theme from the Eroica Symphony and the motto of the Fifth. Here's what Schwartz calls his theme complete [listen -- track 1, 0:03-2:00].

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Copyright © 18 August 2002 Peter Dickinson, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, UK


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