March and Sigh as "Topoi" in Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's "Symphonic Variations on an African Air"

John Snyder, University of Houston

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Symphonic Variations on an African Air, op. 63 (1906) is unique in at least two respects. First, it is based on an African American spiritual -- and one with a distinctly modal flavor. Second, the set is structured so as to counter the parataxis inherent in the theme and variations genre.

This paper briefly examines the techniques the composer used in creating the variations (principally cantus firmus and "free" or "fantasy" variations). The means by which greater syntaxis is achieved in the work's structure are also explored: not only the use of transitions and the "cross-referencing" of variations, but prominently and uniquely the restatement of two variations after a single intervening variation, creating two embedded ternary structures within the set.

But the main thrust of the paper is an examination of the variations themselves through the lens of topic theory. After a brief overview of the topics addressed in the work, detailed attention is given to two topics, Sigh and March, and their evolving relationship the course of the variations. These topics appear regularly throughout the variations, often troped together in various ways, so that their appearances and interactions play a large role in shaping the work.

Finally, these findings are re-considered in view of the content of the source spiritual. One-to-one mapping of the four stanzas of text onto the variations is not possible, but a close reading of the text suggests a narrative arc for the variation set.