Variations on a Theme by Leonard Cohen
by Anderson & Roe
A cult classic originally released in 1984, Leonard Cohen’s most well-known song—covered by numerous artists, including legends like Bob Dylan, Bono, and Jeff Buckley (whose sublime version may be our personal favorite)—is a meditation on the elusive nature of love and the search for atonement. The lyrics contain emotional multitudes in their complexity, and the meaning of “hallelujah” itself seems to shift throughout the song, alternating between despair, yearning, ecstasy, and praise; it emerges as a call that is not solely religious, but profoundly human. As Cohen himself said:
“This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that's what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’…The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, 'Look, I don't understand a thing at all—Hallelujah!’ That's the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.”
The song appropriately opens with an invocation of the Biblical King David, whose gift for the harp had heroic powers (“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord”) but immediately moves into more personal (“But you don’t really care for music, do you?”) and musical territory (“It goes like this / The fourth, the fifth / The minor fall, the major lift”) until it returns to the evocative, symbolic image of “the baffled king composing Hallelujah” (perhaps a commentary on the ineffable puzzle of romantic love, and even of artistic creation). In subsequent verses, the song moves through phases of conflict, desire and heartache, ultimately arriving at a state of grace both resigned and valiant.
In creating our set of variations, we were influenced by the late works of Beethoven and Schubert, who both were masters at unearthing an almost otherworldly transcendence amid human struggle. As a nod to the elliptical nature of the song, we created a set of variations that are structured in an unconventional manner; there are eight variations with no initial, straightforward statement of the theme (a common feature of most variation sets). The eight variations are divided into four pairs: Variation 1 is chorale-like, followed by a variation in which the theme is most clearly presented, in the manner of a Schubert lied. Variations 3 and 4 are bustling, at times straying from the harmonic progressions of the original. The third set of variations are characterized by serpentine configurations, calling to mind Schubert’s idiomatic four-hand piano writing. The concluding two variations are the most expansive, in structure and mood; it meanders, lost, then finally builds toward a climatic, rapturous conclusion.
— Greg Anderson & Elizabeth Joy Roe
Unfortunately, this score is not available for sale.