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Variations on an Original Theme, op. 21, no. 1 and Variations on a Hungarian Song, op. 21, no. 2

October 14, 2018: Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Brahms wrote to his friend Elisabet von Herzogenberg, “I have a singular affection for the variation form, and I believe that this form still compels our talent and ability.” His fondness stemmed in large part from his training in piano and composition with Eduard Marxsen, who stressed above all the importance of being able to vary a theme and whose own output contains a plethora of pieces in variation form. Brahms’s entire body of work is permeated with variation techniques, but the variation form itself also looms large—eight individual sets of variations and ten movements within larger works. These span four decades, from his Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann Variations of 1854 (or his Variations on a Hungarian Song if he indeed began them in 1853) to the variation movement in his E-flat Clarinet Sonata of 1894.

Alongside the musical evidence, Brahms’s verbal statements make it clear that he preferred “strict” variation form over “fantasy” variations that strayed too far from the structure of the theme. Further, he said, within each discrete variation the resemblance to the theme, even if subtle, should be recognizable and not “found only with the eyes.” Nevertheless, he clearly allowed for great leeway within each distinct variation and showed remarkable ingenuity in his overall organization within a set.

Brahms composed the two sets of Opus 21 variations in different waves of inspiration—the Variations on an Original Theme by February of 1857, preceded by the Variations on a Hungarian Song by 1856. On the surface they share little beside their form and D major key, yet in both instances Brahms groups together the minor-mode variations as a unit, connects many of the major-mode variations through melodic figuration, and concludes with a grand finale that returns to elements of the first variation. The differences in the two sets have much to do with his choice of themes—in the first case an expressive original theme written with an eye toward its potential for myriad sophisticated variations, and in the second an existing Hungarian song, which lent itself to a more melody-oriented and often extroverted treatment. Both themes, in different ways, show his penchant for metric play.

The lovely theme of the Variations on an Original Theme unfolds in two nine-bar halves—each with a regular four-bar phrase plus an irregular five-bar phrase, a configuration he maintains almost throughout. The first two variations grow out of a gentle left-hand figuration that draws on the harmonic framework even as it contains references to the melodic outline. Brahms includes a nice hemiola (shift between groups of three pulses and two) toward the end of the first variation, and in the second he subtly introduces new harmonies. The third and fourth bring back the theme’s feature of a repeating bass note (pedal tone) with quiet, fluid chordal patterns above—tied over bar lines in the third and in a spate of little two-chord units in the fourth. Variation 5 introduces a delicate canon in contrary motion and Variation 6 scampers off like quicksilver but in gentle arching phrases. Variation 7 is remarkable for its spare, leaping textures.

Brahms forcefully unleashes the minor mode in Variation 8 in a texture that quickly alternates right and left hands—something he would return to many times in his career. Variation 9 brings the set’s tempestuous climax, abetted by ominous left-hand rumbles that derive from the original pedal tones. Variation 10 remains agitated even as it recedes from the previous peak. The major mode returns with Variation 11, which is striking for its insistence on the pedal tone in the form of long trills. Brahms varies the repeats in this variation and adds an expansive coda that recalls earlier variations before subsiding peacefully.

Brahms first jotted down the theme of the Variations on a Hungarian Song in January 1853 while concertizing with Hungarian violinist Ede Rémenyi, who provided him with a rich store of his country’s tunes. That April Brahms sent a set of three piano settings of Hungarian tunes to another Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim, who was to have a longer and much closer association with Brahms. The second of these settings became the theme for the present set of variations, which Brahms sent to Joachim in July of 1865, following up with a revised version in 1857.

What especially attracted Brahms was the theme’s alternating measures of 3/4 and 4/4, a kind of metric play that fascinated him as much as it did Marxsen, whose formal tutelage he had just left to tour with Reményi. Brahms maintains the metric alternation through his first eight variations, returning to it at the conclusion of the extended finale.

Following his presentation of the brief eight-measure theme in strong chords, Brahms immediately shifts to the minor mode for Variations 1 through 6. Their brevity allows only a glimpse at some fascinating characters—grandiose, lightly chordal, fleeting, imposing, ruminating (with some cimbalon-like accompaniment), and scampering. The switch to major at Variation 7 brings a supremely delicate variation over “quasi pizzicato” left hand. Throughout Brahms retains a melodic connection to the theme, sometimes altered subtly and sometimes migrating into another voice (Variations 2, 7, and 8 in part).

The smoothing out of the meter begins in Variation 8, which is fascinating for its texture of little grace notes in the upper left-hand. Variations 9 through 12 retain the expressive vein with increasingly elaborate figuration building to the capping Variation 13 with its kaleidoscopic further variations, excursions to B-flat major and minor, and triumphant recall of the theme.

We would be remiss not to mention that Brahms waited until 1861 to send both sets of variations to his publisher Simrock, who issued them in two volumes under the same opus number in March of the following year. The first public performance of the Variations on an Original Theme did not occur until October 31, 1865, when Clara Schumann presented them in Frankfurt am Main. The English pianist Florence May, Brahms’s student and biographer, gave the first public performance of the Variation on a Hungarian Song in London on March 25, 1874.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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