Vanitas Variations

Back in the spring, I enjoyed playing through Byrd’s vivacious variations on John Come Kiss Me Now at the piano. Since then, my exploration of the early keyboard repertoire has continued – at least a little bit – and I’ve recently been having a go at Sweelinck’s Mein Junges Leben Hat Ein End.

Unlike Byrd’s amorous tune, Sweelinck takes a hymn with a memento mori theme: ‘my young life is ended’, go the lyrics, ‘my joy and also my song’. Its step-based simplicity certainly conveys a sense of calm resignation, as it begins with a complete descending scale of F major.

But the harmony underneath sets us in D minor, and the melody eventually comes to rest on a D too. Of course, the tussle of relative major/minor keys, topped off with tierce-de-Picardie cadences, is bread and butter to the repertoire of this period. It gives chiaroscuro shading to our musical ‘Vanitas’ picture. But to have this duality expressed so clearly by the melody itself, makes it especially memorable.

At first there’s an easy elegance to the part-writing, which unfolds in quaver runs that are very satisfying to play. It becomes more elaborate in the subsequent variations, with triplets and semiquaver scurryings – including some finger-twisting fast consecutive thirds and sixths which are, I can reveal, very frustrating to not quite be able to play.

But the final variation returns to a slow and stately mood. Perhaps my favourite note in the piece – if you can have such a thing – is the long E in the left hand which appears just as the tune begins its  descent for the last time. This sudden switch to harmonic slow-motion has a lovely loosening effect. It’s like the big in-take of breath before the music makes its polite excuses to leave.

I discovered this work through a harpsichord recording by Sébastien Wonner, but it’s been arranged for various ensembles. There’s an impressive rendition by a Dutch recorder group with the eye-catching name of Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet. Yes, really – read more about them and their remarkable moniker here.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal. For a monthly donation, see my Patreon