Acoustic Sounds
By: Mark Ward

November 25th, 2022


Editor's Choice

"Variations" By Andrew Lloyd Webber

Records "Off the Beaten Track"

We’ve all got that one audiophile or music-loving friend who just can’t get along with classical music. It’s too “serious”, or too “boring”. “There’s too many foreign names and words to remember” or “It’s too elitist”. “There’s no beat…..”

Well, this may be the one record to entice that friend to think - and listen - again.

How can that be? It definitely doesn’t sound like classical music: there’s drums, synthesizers, guitars and drums. No vocals, it goes on for forty minutes and, oh yes, there’s a ‘cello. That’s kind of odd, but still—classical? No way.

Well, of course Variations isn’t a classical record, but fundamentally it’s a through composed work built on one of the most time-honored techniques of classical music—the variation form. Variation form has existed in one guise or another going back to the beginning of western music. It’s something that the human ear just naturally keys into —the desire to decorate the melody, add another line, vary the rhythm. As the form became more codified in classical music a melody was subjected to a kaleidoscope of melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and textural changes to create a long-form composition that dared you to “spot the tune”. That’s the fun of the variation form: your ear is always seeking out the original tune while it’s being simultaneously diverted by the invention of how the composer has sought to develop and often disguise that tune. And before you know it, twenty or thirty or maybe even forty minutes have gone by. And you haven’t been bored for a moment. So, for someone who finds classical music “boring” or “ too complicated” or even “intimidating” that’s a pretty good result.

I think Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations, written in the mid-70s for his brother Julian, a nascent ‘cello virtuoso, and a small band of the UK’s top rockers is one of THE great examples of variation form in any kind of music, and it’s definitely one of the best examples of that usually ghastly genre so beloved of record label execs: the “crossover project”. It’s beautifully recorded and performed, the tune and its variations are endlessly hummable, and it has stood the test of time while so many other records attempting to fuse classical, rock and jazz have thankfully disappeared into the Great Remainder Bin in the Sky.

Julian and Andrew Lloyd Webber working on "Variations"Julian and Andrew Lloyd Webber working on Variations

So, what have we got here?

At the time he composed Variations in 1977, Andrew Lloyd Webber had already taken London’s West End and Broadway by storm with his two “rock musicals on a religious theme”: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar. Born into a musical family, Webber started composing at a young age and gave up his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford to take up a more formal musical education at London’s prestigious Royal College of Music. By this time he had already met the slightly older Tim Rice, a word wizard, who was to become Andrew’s first and most important collaborator on his early hits, Joseph..., ...Superstar and Evita.

Now, I will readily confess to being allergic to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and shows beyond ...Superstar. For my taste they wallow too much in saccharine sentiment and easy musical affect. Their tunes are frequently derivative, if not flat-out stolen (the big hit “Memories” from “Cats”, is essentially Ravel’s “Bolero” slowed down!). From Evita onwards the seemingly inexorable, dare I say crushing, progression towards the through-composed, watered-down pseudo-opera of his later musicals like Phantom of the Opera I find suffocating with banality. But those two early biblical rock-pop extravaganzas are the real deal: witty, smart, and both respectful and irreverent of their source material in all the best ways, the ways that make you think about the meaning of their stories anew while you are also just rocking out to Judas having a meltdown.

Andrew Lloyd Webber brings a similar inventiveness and iconoclasm to “Variations”, and the result sounds as fresh today as it did when the record came out in 1978 (just before Evita opened). Like many composers before him, Webber turns to Paganini’s “Caprice No. 24” for solo violin—itself a set of theme and variations—for his source material.

Hilary Hahn performing Paganini’s Caprice #24

There’s a reason this piece has inspired so many great composers to use it as their main theme for sets of variations: it’s simple, easy to manipulate, and catchy as hell. Webber’s Capricious predecessors include Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Lutoslawski and Benny Goodman. I literally just discovered a brilliant work based on the tune by Boris Blacher, a lesser-known 20th century German composer whose work was banned by the Nazis. (There’s a very good recording of it from a live concert with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georg Solti, on Decca).

"Variations” sets the myriad tones and capabilities of the ‘cello against the rock and jazz stylings of a typical rock group, consisting of guitars, drums, percussion and keyboards, supplemented by saxophones and flute.

"Variations" —Opening (Original Broadcast performance on The South Bank Show)

Because Webber is fully versed in classical form and technique, he’s able to apply to his variations the full armory of harmonic and contrapuntal invention, as well as draw on the expertise of his virtuosic musicians. The music will be moody and romantic one moment, funky the next. One moment the band will be in full rock-out mode, the next a singing melody will break out over a cascade of guitars and sensuous synths that makes your heart soar. Unlike most rock music, Webber steers us through a variety of sophisticated key changes and time signatures without falling into the trap of directionless noodling that so much prog rock, aspiring to the density of rock and jazz, had fallen victim to by the late 1970s. No variation outstays its welcome, and surprise is around every corner. I’ve never heard the piece live, so I can’t speak to whether there is much space for fully-fledged improvisation, but there are definitely a few places in the work where you feel the musicians are following their own flightpath. Ultimately, what holds the piece together so effectively, and prevents it from outstaying its welcome, is that you’ve got classical compositional technique successfully married with a rock idiom that, in the 70s, was in its heyday.

Webber chose his supporting musicians cannily. The core group is derived from the rock-jazz outfit Colosseum II. You’ve got Gary Moore on guitar (he later played with Thin Lizzy); Jon Hiseman on drums (he served his apprenticeship with The Graham Bond Organisation and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers); and Don Airey on keyboards (latterly with Deep Purple).

Colosseum II in Variations (Original Broadcast performance on The South Bank Show)

The brilliant saxophonist and flautist Barbara Thompson was another member of Colosseum II. She was a mainstay of the British music scene through decades of myriad collaborations, and in “Variations” she’s there to jazzify and “Tullify” the band sound, an apt acoustic counterpart to the cello’s woody string textures.

Barbara Thompson and Julian Lloyd Webber in Variations (Original Broadcast Performance on The South Bank Show)

This core group was supplemented by a few mainstays of the London studio scene, like keyboardist and ex-Zombie Rod Argent, whose sideline gig was a music store on Denmark Street, London’s answer to Tin Pan Alley; his store provided generations of synth-players with their instruments, including this writer. Cameo appearances include the ubiquitous bassist Herbie Flowers and a guy you may have heard of called Phil Collins—can’t recall what he’s playing….

Original Broadcast performance of Variations on The South Bank Show

The record was engineered by Martin Levan who went on to do sound design for Webber’s stage musicals and whose other records included John Martyn’s Grace and Danger and Neil Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, an essential blend of jazz and classical destined to be the subject of a future column in this series. The sound of Variations will instantly transport you to the sonic glories of an era epitomized by early Bowie albums like Hunky Dory or the Elton John records produced by Gus Dudgeon. It’s no coincidence that you often feel like Elton might burst in with a vocal: Webber shares Elton’s gift for an ear-worm hook, and there are many times when you could swear you are listening to a Paul Buckmaster arrangement from Madman Across the Water or A Single Man, the latter of which came out the same year as Variations (Buckmaster was, after all, a ‘cellist too). The woody drums keep the thing percolating and groovin’, while acoustic piano alternatively rocks, boogie-woogies and balladeers with synths that are richly, gloriously all-analogue, singing out in the sunset of their days before the digital interlopers from Yamaha took over town and defined the pop sound of the 80s.

End of Variations (Original Broadcast performance on The South Bank Show)

Your delivery medium of choice must be an original UK pressing on MCA Records. The sound is so inviting you will find it hard to resist brewing up a cup of Earl Grey and fetching out the Rich Tea biscuits (make that Chocolate Digestives for you more iconoclastic listeners). Even the cover art, modeled on an 18th century painting, captures the dual nature of the classically-minded, yet also modern and cheeky, music contained within. Frederick, a British Prince of Wales from an earlier era, plays his ‘cello with his sisters through large modern amps and speakers. (It’s also worth noting that Britain’s newly minted Charles III was a ‘cellist in his youth). Footnote: Variations maintained a weekly presence in British popular culture for over 30 years as the theme tune on Melvyn Bragg’s survey of the arts, “The South Bank Show”.

Title Sequences from The South Bank Show, featuring “Variations”

Legend has it that Julian Lloyd Webber pestered his older brother for years to write something for ‘cello, but that Andrew always cried off by saying Julian was too much of a serious musician to be bothered with his lighter style of composition. It was only when Andrew lost a bet on the outcome of a soccer match that he finally knuckled down to his manuscript paper. It’s not often that music-lovers have a losing soccer team to thank for such a singular Record Off the Beaten Track.

Variations by Andrew Lloyd Webber - complete

if music and sound knobs were available in "Features", Variations would get a 9 for music and sound.


Other works based on the Paganini Caprice #24:

Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (Vladimir Ashkenazy piano, with London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn) LP Decca SXL 6556

Boris Blacher: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti) CD Decca/London 452 853-2

Other classical sets of variations:

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn; Elgar: Enigma Variations (London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux) LP RCA Living Stereo LSC 2418 Classic Records reissue

Britten: Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell); Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge (London Symphony Orchestra/English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Britten) LP Decca SXL 6450

Other Jazz/Rock based on variation form:

Neil Ardley: Kaleidoscope of Rainbows LP Gull Records (UK) GULP 1018; Pure Pleasure Records (2LP Reissue) GULLPP1018

Mark Ward is a Peabody Award-winning radio producer, writer and director whose drama and music programs have aired on National Public Radio, the BBC and other international networks. His short film, “Clinic E”, won the Franklin J. Schaffner Award from the American Film Institute, and played at over 40 festivals worldwide. His articles on film and music have appeared in the Financial Times and the Boston Globe.

Mark trained in classical music from the age of 7: singing, playing, conducting and composing. He specialized in early music for his degree at Oxford and wrote his thesis on Bernard Herrmann at a time when few were studying film music seriously.  He has also dabbled in song-writing and studio production. He began a lifelong interest in the art of recorded sound when he started collecting records at the age of 10. You can follow him on Music On Record, his YouTube channel