My Variations for Orchestra was written for the Louisville Orchestra during 1955 from sketches made in 1953 and 1954. The project of writing such a work had interested me for some time as I was eager to put into concrete musical terms a number of ideas I had about this old form. Traditionally, of course, this type of composition is based on one pattern of material, a theme or a succession of harmonies out of which are built many short contrasting pieces or sections of music. The theme and each little section form musical vignettes usually presenting one single, unchanging mood or character and often only one musical idea or technique. Viewed as a series of separate pieces of sharply defined character, a set of musical variations resembles certain old literary works such as the collection of brief, trenchant delineations of Ethical Characters by Theophrastus, held together by one common idea or purpose. Such a set implicitly gives expression to the classical attitude toward the problem of "unity in diversity."
In this work I was interested in adopting a more dynamic and changeable approach. The general characteristics of the form are maintained — one pattern of material out of which a diversity of characters come — but the principle of variation is often applied even within the scope of each short piece. In some, great changes of character and theme occur; in others, contrasting themes and characters answer each other back and forth or are heard simultaneously. By these and other devices, I have tried to give musical expression to experiences anyone living today must have when confronted by so many remarkable examples of unexpected types of changes and relationships of character uncovered in the human sphere by psychologists and novelists, in the life cycle of insects and certain marine animals by biologists, indeed in every domain of science and art. Thus the old notion of unity in diversity presents itself to us in an entirely different guise than it did to people living even a short while ago.
Musically, the work is based on three ideas. The first two, rilornelli, are repeated literally here and there throughout the work in various transpositions of pitch and speed, while the third is a theme that undergoes many transformations. Of the ritornelli, the first, rising rapidly shortly after the opening, becomes progressively slower at each restatement (Variations I, III, VIII, and the Finale). The material of the main theme is used in many different ways and its characteristic motive is frequently referred to. The large plan consists in a presentation of degrees of contrast of character and their gradual neutralization during the first four variations. In the Fifth Variation, contrast is reduced to a minimum, and from there on there is increasing definition and conflict of character until in the Finale, the restatement of the notes of the theme by the trombones re-establishes unity.
Each variation has its own shape, since shape, too, as a mode of musical behavior, helps to define character. For instance, the First Variation and the Finale are both rapid dialogues of many contrasting motives in contrasting rhythms. The Second Variation presents contrast of character by quoting the theme almost literally and confronting it with its own variants derived alternately by intervalic expansion and intervalic diminution. The Third contrasts textures of dense harmony and expressive lines with transparent fragmentary motives. The Fourth Variation is a continual ritard, and the Sixth an accelerating series of imitations. The Fifth obliterates contrast in a succession of chords using the notes of the theme. The Seventh is an antiphonal variation presenting three different ideas played in succession by the strings, brass and woodwinds, and representing cession three different rhythmic planes. The line the woodwinds play in Variation VII is continued and developed in Variation VIII while ideas of a much lighter musical nature are presented against it. The same idea is carried over into Variation IX, where it is rejoined by the other two ideas from Variation VII, now played simultaneously. The Finale is a rapid interplay of different characters, finally called to order by the trombones, who restate the notes of the first half of the theme while the strings softly play those of the second half.
The orchestration in detail and the orchestral style of the whole was conceived taking into account the exact size of the Louisville Orchestra with its limited string group, though of course the work can be played by a symphony orchestra of the customary size. The following are called for: 2 each of flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), oboes, clarinets, bassoons; 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (2 players), harp (2 harps ad lib.), 9 first violins, 6 second violins, 6 violas, 4 cellos and 4 basses.
— Elliott Carter