The Friday Symposium: Themes and Variations

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Some of the more popular musical forms are equally applicable in the cocktail world. Take for example, the enduring form of theme and variation. There are many famous examples to choose from–this blog has already addressed Bach’s Goldberg Variations but skipped Beethoven’s Diabelli Variation. Rather than return to Beethoven, let’s consider an example from Schubert, his comparatively brief Imromptu in B-Flat Major, D. 935 No. 3. Setting aside the debate as to whether this is really the third movement of another piano sonata (as Robert Schumann believed) or simply the third of four indepdent works (as Schubert’s publisher determined), it is as perfect an example of the theme and variation form as you are likely to find.

The composition opens with a serene and floating melody, which is repeated beforre being put through its paces across five variations. The first variation adds a dotted rhythm, with synchopated chords in the basss. The second variation transfers part of the theme to the bass. The third variation modulates to B-Flat Minor, the parallel minor key, adding triplets in the accompaniment. For the fourth variation, Schubert modulates again to G-Flat Major before unleashing long and sweeping scales in the final variation. The music appears destined to return to the tonic of B-Flat Major, but instead we get a pause, leading to a brief coda in the form of a chorale. It’s a lovely work, especially in the hands of one of the great interpreters of Schubert, Alfred Brendel.

Franz Schubert, Imromptu in B-Flat Major, D. 935 No. 3:

Schubert was a natural at this form given his great gift for composing melodies. But music isn’t the only art susceptible to a “theme and variation” form. Consider the Negroni, as classic a cocktail as you could hope for. Invented in Florence about 100 years ago at the late-lamented Caffè Casoni for Count Camillo Negroni, the drink has become one of the stars of the 21st century cocktail revolution. And like Schubert’s best melodies, it is simplicity itself–equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, served up with a twist of lemon.

Variations on the Negroni are endless. The Boulevardier is a modern classic, appearing on many cocktail lists across the country–it simply swaps out the gin for bourbon. Choosing the right bournon to offeset the bitter Campari and a not trivial amount of sweet vermouth is no easy task. Rye actually might be your best bet here. All things being equal, I much prefer the ligheter and effervescent Negroni Spogliato, which substitutes sparkling Prosecco for the gin–a more pleasing version of the now-ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. Some variations make two substitutions, such as the Old Pal, which swaps out the gin for rye and the sweet vermouth for dry. Only the Campari and the tell-tale lemon peel garnish hint at its origins. The White Negroni, invented in France, swaps out the Campari for Suze and the sweet vermouth for dry. As it was invented by a director of Plymouth gin, the English contribution to the cocktail (and the lemon peel) are the only links back to the original.

As Bach and Beethoven were fond of demonstrating, the creative mind can take any theme and spin out endless variations on it. Bach was famous for doing so on the organ during church services; Beethoven’s inventive exploits largely took place in private at the piano. So too have bartenders with the Negroni. Pick one from the above or invent your own. Just keep it three equal parts and garnished with a lemon peel.

Classic Negroni Cocktail

  • 1oz gin (Plymouth is preferred)
  • 1oz Campari
  • 1oz Sweet Vermouth (Cocchi Storico is preferred)

Comine ingredients and stir for 30 seconds. Serve up with a twist of lemon.

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