The late John McCabe, in his definitive study of Alan Rawsthorne (Oxford University Press, 1999) only makes two mentions of this work. He places the work in its chronological position, between the only work that the composer completed during 1966, The God in the Cave, for chorus and orchestra, to a text by Randall Swingler. The year 1967 was more productive. Apart from the present work, Rawsthorne completed his short ‘Overture for Farnham’, the Ballade for piano solo and the ‘Scena rustica’ (John Skelton) for soprano and harp.
After enumerating a brief history of the Theme, Variations and Finale, McCabe states that he has some reservations about the work. He also wonders if ‘the larger canvas [it is more than 15 minutes long] enabled [Rawsthorne] to relax somewhat.’ Writing for a good youth orchestra is presumably easier than composing for a secondary school: ‘one may reasonably have higher expectations of their expertise.’
McCabe thinks that the ‘theme’ is one of Rawsthorne’s ‘amiable compound-time tunes (12/8) …not especially memorable either as a tune or in orchestral texture, but with potential for variation.’
The propensity for each variation to gradually die away is seen a negatively by McCabe. For example, he considers the sixth variation ‘opts merely for hints of a possible extra variation’ before ‘drifting’ into the finale.
There is potential in the first (Allegro energico) and sixth (Declamando-Allegretto) variations, although he deems them to have insufficient development. He thinks that the variation 5 (Allegro risoluto) is the ‘best’ with a ‘sometimes raucous 3/4 at a speed bringing it close to the spirit of Beethoven one-in-a-bar scherzo, before it becomes apparent that it is really a somewhat crazy waltz, a highly entertaining one at that.’ ‘Freshness’ is a distinguishing feature of finale, with its ‘hornpipey’ mood and diatonic harmonic structure. John McCabe feels that the work had a clichéd ending: with ‘contrary motion scales to bring the piece to a thoroughly manufactured conclusion.’