Gemini Variations, Op.73 – Twelve variations and fugue on an epigram of Kodály. Quartet for two (or four) players: flute, violin and piano 4 hands (5 March 1963, Britten aged 49)
Dedication For Zoltán and Gábor Jeney
A clip of the recording made by the Jeney twins. With thanks to Decca.
Background and Critical Reception
While in Budapest with Peter Pears, Britten met the twins Zoltán and Gábor Jeney, two students in their late teens. They got on very well, and the Hungarian duo bombarded him with requests for a new piece. Britten promised them in a moment of weakness that if they were to write to him in Aldeburgh he would come up with something, little thinking they would actually follow through with their plan!
Britten therefore had to keep his part of the deal, and invited them to perform the now completed Gemini Variations at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1965. What he could not resist, mind, was to write a piece that brought mathematical combinations in to play. Because the twins played flute and violin, but both played piano, Britten thought it would be fun to write a set of variations for all four instruments, but with just the twins performing.
He therefore chose a theme, the fourth of Kodály’s Epigrammák: énekre, vagy hangszerre zongorakísérettel, and set about writing variations for all the possible combinations using the two players only, including four hands at the piano. Some of these variations were mathematical themselves, with two ‘mirror variations’ in the style of Bach at the centre.
Kodály himself was also present at the first performance, given in Aldeburgh Parish Church on 19 June 1965, and a recording was also made with the twins performing. Since then, however, the Gemini Variations have been very infrequently performed and recorded.
Despite the irresistible story and circumstances of composition for the Gemini Variations, I’m afraid to say I found them to be rather dry musically, and of probable enjoyment to the performers a lot more than the audience.
There are some entertaining moments, that is true, but this is a long piece that impresses with the achievement of its variations and fugue but which ultimately feels short of musical substance. The theme itself is attractive, but the writing – given that it has to be for students – is not as characterful, and goes through the motions without really charming or affecting the emotions. The end, too, is not wholly satisfying.
Perhaps a live performance of the piece with two people would be a lot more entertaining – I suspect it would be – and I would find that preferable to four people playing, where John Bridcut’s assertion that two is better would undoubtedly come in to play.
A disappointment, then – but the Gemini Variations do offer further proof of Britten’s ability and willingness to give his music to other people, rather than write it simply for his own ends.
Thoughts from Zoltán Jeney, who got in touch with the blog on January 22:
I would like to rectify a couple of mistakes that I found in your text :
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears were not on holiday in Hungary. They went to Budapest in the Spring of 1964 for the first time to give concerts and to see a performance of Albert Herring at the Hungarian State Opera House.
In 1964, when we met Britten we were 12 years of age, so we were primary school children and not students in their late teens.
The event where we had met Britten, was part of our school training and Britten drawn to it purely by accident. It was the idea of ‘Országos Filharmonia’, the state owned concert agency of Hungary.
I agree with your critic, everything you write is true. We do not like that recording of DECCA at all, and we have been trying everything to organise means to produce a really good one. When we first heard it, we were just shattered.
Those days we did not have the technical and the necessary command of our instruments in order to bring everything out of the work, that is inside it. Now, after having studied and having lived in England we have a very strong concept of the piece and it is nothing like the DECCA recording.
You should consider,that we were not prodigies, we were completely normal children, who perhaps had the advantage of starting music at an early age with excellent guidance.
I do not think either that Ben meant this piece for prodigies. In fact he knew, he wrote it too difficult and he was extremely worried if we could learn it at all. That is why we had sent him a tape recording six weeks before the festival started for which he was very thankful and relieved.
That recording could be in fact better then the DECCA one, because the circumstances were much more favourable then in England. For instance after the first performance we went to London and had to perform every day for three days, but nobody thought about providing us an accommodation with a piano. So our performance had just got worse and worse. In order to play Gemini Variations well, you have to practice every day both instruments three hours.
Franz Liszt said himself, “if I do not practice a day nobody notices, if i do not practice two days my critic will notice it”….etc…. The DECCA recording was made at the very end of our duties. We were exhausted by then.
Also perhaps it was lack of professional experience, that we could not perform under studio conditions as though there was an audience present.
What you wrote about the recording certainly can not be said about the first performance : Britten came to us before the first performance and warned us, that we should not be offended or worry about it , but in England people do not clap in churches, so after we finished everybody will be silent, and just go home. It is tradition,and two days before Sviatoslav Richter played a concert and nobody clapped either.
Our piece came after several works sung by an eminent women’s chorus from Budapest singing Kodaly’s works : and indeed, nobody clapped. Now we knew, what it felt like. We started our piece, and everything went well, in the end the boisterous Fugue, where the two Fugue themes clash Fortissimo Finale, and the ice broke : Everybody jumped up for a standing ovation!!
If you don’t believe my words, ask somebody, who was there and is still alive. Mrs Kodály for instance.
Zoltán and Gábor Jeney (flute, violin and piano 4 hands) (Decca)
The Jeney twins have recorded the Gemini Variations themselves, an account that perhaps reflects their student status, with a few rough edges to the performance. A very close recording does not help either.
There are two versions of the Gemini Variations on Spotify – firstly from the Jeney twins here, and secondly from an ensemble led by Rainer Kussmaul on an album also containing Britten’s music for oboe.
Also written in 1963: Xenakis – Eonta
Next up: Night piece (Notturno