Variation Movements for Trumpet (1967)
by Robert Henderson

Biographical Info

Robert Henderson’s remarkably productive career began before he reached college age and has expanded without pause since then. He was three years old when his father gave him his first violin lessons. When he reached his teens he added piano and horn to the instruments he played, and began studying composition and theory with Donal Michalsky. By the time he entered the University of Southern California he had begun receiving prizes for his compositions; he augmented his studies at USC with private lessons in composition and conducting from Ingolf Dahl, and began his conducting career as associate conductor of the Idyllwild Music Festival Orchestra and the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra.

Henderson began composing Variation Movements while in high school and later revised the work while studying with Dahl. The piece was finished in 1967 and has been featured at the 1976 International Brass Convention in Zurich and the 1986 Munich Instrumental Competition.

Also while still in his teens, Mr. Henderson began performing as a horn player. He took part in some of Igor Stravinsky’s last recordings of his own works and subsequently performed in more than three thousand sound tracks for movies and television. Away from Hollywood, he performed with major orchestras in England and the United States, and began to expand his activity as a conductor. In 1979 he was named associate conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, and two years later he became music director of the Arkansas Symphony. Since then he has conducted the principal orchestras of Iceland and Chile, and more than 35 orchestras in our own country.

Suggested Equipment

Bb or C trumpet.  Straight and harmon mutes for the 4th movement.

I recorded the excerpts included here on an Eclipse C trumpet and used a Balu wooden straight mute and a Marcus Bona harmon (no stem).

Practice/Performance Tips

I know I’m being blasphemous when I say this, and the Google-ratings for this site will undoubtedly plummet, but honestly, the Henderson Variations is not one of my favorite unaccompanied works.  I like it, but it’s not a favorite.  There is something about it that feels like it’s trying too hard to be important.  However, I do recognize its’ important standing in our repertoire.  It poses some great technical obstacles that are “fun” to try to overcome.  There are some wonderful moments in the work and there are numerous opportunities to work on or teach certain musical interpretation skills.  For example:

Movement 1 – Theme

Movement 1

From the composer; “Variation Movements for Trumpet is not a “theme and variations” in the classical sense. The theme is stated in the first twelve bars of the first movement, but the variations do not incorporate the entire theme. This theme is constructed on a ten-note row (using nine pitches) that is repeated twice in the original form and once in retrograde form, with three additional cadential notes tacked on.”

Movement 2

Movement 2

Var. 1 is a study in schizophrenic trumpet playing.  (This movement splits you into only two personalities, while the 5th movement divides you into three!  We’ll get there in a minute…)

The theme, or parts of it, is in the louder, accented notes with the accompaniment being the softer inner three pitches.  It helps to practice these sections separately to try to get a melodic flow to the loud accented notes.  Otherwise this can come off sounding a bit pointalistic.

Movement 3

Movement 3

Again, the accents are the “melody” notes so try to bring them out.  However, I think that too much accent can disrupt the overall flow that makes this movement contrast Var. 1 so nicely.  After the initial eighth-note passage there is a neat echo affect, but it’s in reverse!  The theme of the echo happens softly first then is answered by a loud string of eighth-notes with the accented ones being the echo theme.  It’s kind of the opposite of what you would expect, and once you realize this little secret, makes this section a little trickier.  Use terraced dynamics here; it’s very tempting to crescendo at the end of the soft echo themes.

Movement 4

Movement 4

This lovely rubato, lyrical movement opens with muted (straight) trumpet, recalls moments from movements 2 & 3 and ends with a harmon mute.  In my opinion, I think the mute changes are written to happen unreasonable quick.  The changes could be made that fast but the abruptness in sound and action on the player’s part, would take away from the calm, reflective nature of this movement.

Movement 5

Movement 5

The “Variation Movements” by Robert Henderson is considered by many to be one of the finest works ever written for unaccompanied trumpet.  The sheer complexity of the work places it at the top of the list of “landmark” pieces one strives to master as a student of contemporary trumpet literature.  For a monophonic work (a single trumpet) this piece tries to incorporate polyphony in a number of different ways.   Often this is done with dramatic dynamic (mvt. 2) or articulation changes (mvt. 3).

The 5th movement however, has three separate parts written out on three staves.  I’m sure most people just learn to read the multiple staves like an organist but for me the piece presents enough technical challenges, so I dumped this movement into Finale.   Everything is on one staff with careful attention paid to all dynamics and articulations.  I even grouped stems in such a way as to delineate the different parts.  I truly believe that the listener would (should) not be able to tell from which version you are playing, the original score or my adaptation of the 5th movement.   I acknowledge that there is merit and probably benefits from learning to read three staves simultaneously while playing one of the most challenging works ever written for trumpet.  Deciding if that additional “extra credit” merit is worth the time is up to you.  You can get my 5th movement addendum for free under the “Shop” tab.  (You’re welcome!)  Think of this addendum as one step in the process of learning the piece.  (If you’re like me though, you won’t go back to three staves!)

There is a fantastic DMA dissertation exhaustively analyzing the “Variation Movements” note by note here.

Suggested Recordings

Hӓkan Hardenberger, Tom Stevens, Terry Everson all have fantastic recordings of this piece.