Compact Discoveries®
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited
by Fred Flaxman

©2014 by Fred Flaxman

Program 229
"Symphonic Variations"

MUSIC: excerpt from César Franck: Symphonic Variations performed by pianist François-Joël Thiollier with Roberto Benzi conducting the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra [Naxos 8.553472, Track 1]  [under the following]

Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries program number 229. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman, and in case you have just discovered Compact Discoveries yourself, let me explain that each one-hour program features a different theme. Sometimes the theme is based on the music of a single, unjustly neglected composer. Sometimes it is based on a single factor that inspired music by several composers: cats, for example, or trains, or, say, the color blue. Sometimes our themes are serious, sometimes more playful, such as “Best Music for Back-rubs” or “Discs for Dishwashing.”

Stay with me for this hour and we’ll explore three compositions by three different composers from three different countries who all wrote pieces they called “Symphonic Variations.” First we’ll hear Symphonic Variations by the Belgian/French composer César Franck, then we’ll listen to Symphonic Variations by the Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, and finally we’ll hear Symphonic Variations by the British composer Sir Hubert Parry.

MUSIC: Fades out.

César Franck was born in 1822 in Liège in what is now Belgium, although at the time of his birth it was under the control of the Netherlands. It was in that city that he gave his first concerts in 1834.

Franck studied privately in Paris from 1835 and later moved permanently to the French capital, where he married and embarked on a career as a teacher and organist. In 1858 he became the organist at Saint-Clotilde, a position he retained for the rest of his life.

He became a professor at the Paris Conservatory in 1872, taking French nationality, which was required for the appointment. His pupils included Vincent d’Indy and Ernest Chausson. While a professor at the Conservatory he wrote several pieces that have entered the standard classical repertoire, including symphonic, chamber, and keyboard works. His Symphonic Variations is one of those pieces.

We hear it now as performed by pianist François-Joël Thiollier with the Arnhem, Netherlands, Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Roberto Benzi from a 2002 Naxos compact disc.

MUSIC: César Franck: Symphonic Variations, performed by pianist  François-Joël Thiollier with Roberto Benzi conducting the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra [Naxos 8.553472, Track 1]  [14:53]

César Franck’s Symphonic Variations. Pianist François-Joël Thiollier was the soloist with the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Roberto Benzi.

You are listening to “Symphonic Variations” on this hour of Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.

[optional one-minte break not included in the program timing]

Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations were supposedly written in response to a challenge from a friend to write variations on a theme that seemed impossible for that purpose. Dvořák chose the third of his set of three part-songs for unaccompanied male voices.

The Symphonic Variations were written in 1877, and the work was first performed in Prague the same year. The occasion was a charity concert to raise money for the construction of a church, and, although the audience liked the piece, there was no press coverage of it. Dvořák’s publishers showed no interest in the work, either, so he put it aside for ten years.

In March 1887, under pressure to produce more music, Dvořák revived the work, this time conducting it himself in Prague. The National Theatre Orchestra so pleased him with this second performance that he decided to send the score to the conductor Hans Richter. Richter was delighted with it, and immediately included the piece in the program for his forthcoming English tour. He wrote to Dvořák after the first rehearsal with the Philharmonic Society of London on May 13: “I am absolutely carried away. It is a magnificent work! I am so happy to be the first to produce it in London. But why have you held it back so long? These variations should shine in the first rank of your compositions.”

The concert itself later that month was a huge success, and Richter wrote again: “At the hundreds of concerts which I have conducted during my life, no new work has ever had such a success as yours.”

In December 1887 Vienna was to hear Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations for the first time, again with Richter conducting. In the audience were Dvořák and his friend Johannes Brahms, who presented the composer with a beautiful cigarette holder to mark the occasion. Now Dvořák’s publisher, which had declined to publish the work ten years earlier, sat up and took notice, but instead of the opus number 28 that Dvořák had given it, they published it as opus 78, to suggest a brand new composition.

Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations are among the three most frequently played of all sets of orchestral variations, along with Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn and Elgar’s Enigma Variations. In the Brilliant Classics compact disc recording we are about to hear, Theodore Kuchar conducts the Janàcek Philharmonic Orchestra.

MUSIC: Dvořák: Symphonic Variations, Op. 78, performed by the Janàcek Philharmonic Orchestra with Theodore Kuchar conducting [Brilliant Classics 92297, CD2, Track 1]  [20:26]

Dvořák’s Symphonic Variations.  Theodore Kuchar conducted the Janàcek Philharmonic Orchestra.

You are listening to “Symphonic Variations” on this hour of Compact Discoveries. I’m your guide, Fred Flaxman.

[optional one-minute break not included in the program timing]

After early attempts to work in insurance, at his father’s behest, of course, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry got a job as a contributor to George Grove’s massive Dictionary of Music and Musicians in the 1870s and 80s. Then in 1883 he was hired by Grove, who was the first head of the Royal College of Music, as professor of composition and musical history. In 1895 Parry succeeded Grove as head of the College, remaining in the post for the rest of his life. At the same time, from 1900 until 1908, he was a professor of music at Oxford University. He wrote several books about music and music history, the best-known being his 1909 study of Johann Sebastian Bach.

As you can imagine, Parry’s academic duties prevented him from devoting all his energies to composition, but some contemporaries such as Charles Villiers Stanford nevertheless rated him as the finest English composer since Henry Purcell. Others, including Frederick Delius, were not so impressed. In any case, Parry wrote a fair amount of music, including one opera, incidental music to eight plays, choral music, overtures, symphonies, chamber music, music for solo piano, organ, violin, and many songs.

For several decades Parry’s Symphonic Variations in E Minor remained his only orchestral work to be given the occasional performance. It was greatly admired by Elgar and other composers, and it remains an effective orchestral tour de force today. The first performance was given under the composer’s baton in 1897.  We hear it now as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Matthias Bamert on a Chandos compact disc.

MUSIC: Parry: Symphonic Variations in E Minor, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Matthias Bamert Chandos CHAN 6610, Track 1]  [14:06]

Symphonic Variations in E Minor by Sir Hubert Parry. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Matthias Bamert.

You have been listening to “Symphonic Variations” on this hour of Compact Discoveries. If you missed any of this program or would like to hear it again, you can stream it on demand without charge at You can also see the script there for information on every recording used. This is program number 229.  You can reach me through the website or directly at I truly enjoy hearing from listeners all over the world who hear the program either on their local public radio station or via the SKY.FM Compact Discoveries Channel on the internet. In any case, thank you for listening now, and I hope you’ll tune in again. This is Fred Flaxman, your guide to Compact Discoveries.

ANNOUNCER (Tana Flaxman): Compact Discoveries is made possible in part by an anonymous donor from Palm Beach, Florida. And by the financial support of Isabel and Marvin Leibowitz. And by ArkivMusic dot com, the online store for classical music CDs, DVDs, downloads, and over 10,000 on-demand reissued titles. That’s A-r-k-i-v Music dot com.

Program Ends at 58:50