A concert piece for piano
Published by: Highbridge Music Ltd
Commissioned by: Howard Ferguson
Duration: 8 mins
First Performance: Thorunn Tryggvaason, Royal Academy of Music, 1959.
Sheet Music Available
Instrumental / piano score for sale


  • 1: misterioso, lento
  • 2: con fuoco, allegro
  • 3: allegro
  • 4: l'istesso tempo, nervoso
  • 5: vivace
  • 6: lento
  • 7: lento
  • 8: vivo - un poco capriccioso
  • 9: vivo energico
  • 10: piu mosso con fuoco
  • 11: sempre fuoco
  • 12: finale, vivace


Composer's notes: I composed 'Variations on a theme of Bartok' in early 1958 at the suggestion of my composition professor, Howard Ferguson, who recommended it for an Academy prize.  Harold Craxton  thought it the 'the best piano work he had ever seen from a student' but it didn't actually win a prize. However he did persuade his brilliant Icelandic pupil, Thorunn Tryggvaason, to perform it at her farewell Academy recital. Soon after this she left for Moscow to study with Lev Oborin and there met Vladimir Ashkenazy whom she married. (The theme by Bartok is from 'Microkosmos', copyright Boosey and Hawkes.)

(Further note 2008)  'In my first term at the Royal Academy Howard Ferguson set this little children’s piano tune in C major from ‘Mikrokosmos’ as a subject for variation, explaining that I should ‘retain the form of the theme though not necessarily its melody’. In fact the piece is played at the beginning and never quoted again, but its bar structure 33,223,223, is unusual as is its modulation in those 20 bars from tonic to super-tonic.

Var.1 (misterioso, lento) is mysterious and linear  but var.2 (con fuoco, allegro) immediately expands into something passionate, even anguished. Var.3 (allegro) does the opposite and contracts the theme into a tightly-worked passage of cross-rhythms. Var.4 (l’istesso tempo, nervoso) continues this idea whilst losing all melodic reference and concentrating on rhythm. Var.5 (vivace) is again passionate with the energy of double octaves in canon. It moves to a climactic held chord in which both fifth and diminished fifth are present.

 Var.6 (lento) The long-held chord leads to very slow soft chords and a decidedly ‘eastern-european’ line 2 octaves apart, ending in B flat and a point of repose. Var.7 acts as a sort of central ‘slow movement’ to the work using wide-spread sonorities laid out on 4 staves.

 Var.8 in A major (vivo – un poco capriccioso) is almost a miniature scherzo and briefly lightens the mood, but Var. 9 butts in with rapid F sharp minor staccati pressing on into more angst in Var. 10 (Piu mosso, con fuoco) and even more ferocity in Var. 11 (sempre fuoco).

The 12th ‘variation’ is a Finale (vivace). The structure remains but a more orchestral texture develops into a brilliant Coda which at its very end states a wrong-note memory of the opening 3-bar theme and a hefty thump of dismissal!


1st November 2008 Nadia Giliova, Leconfield Hall, Petworth as part of the Petworth Festival
11th July 2008 Nadia Giliova, Wigmore Hall
12th October 1959 Thorunn Tryggvason, Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music (student concert)
5th May 1959 Howard Blake, The Dome, Brighton (Brighton competitive musical festival)



This interesting Wigmore Hall recital by Nadia Giliova became more so in the second half, which began with Howard Blake’s Variations on a Theme of Bartók (the theme taken from Mikrokosmos), written 50 years ago but only now receiving its premiere public performance. This year sees Howard Blake’s 70th-birthday, so this work from his student years coincidentally gave us a glimpse of his initial compositional style. Suffice it to say that it is fully representative of the mature composer, and the rather brief Variations (the Theme itself is also short, as befits its source) make a splendidly attractive set, very well laid out for the piano, and extremely well played (from memory!) by this fine artist. One could well imagine this piece entering the repertoires of many pianists. It was a pity, however, that the composer, who was present, was not invited by Giliova to acknowledge enthusiastic applause.

Robert Matthew-Walker, Classical Music, 1/8/2008

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