Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35, Book 1

October 14, 2018: Garrick Ohlsson, piano

Once Brahms had settled in Vienna he naturally developed friendships with many of the musicians there, none more surprising to his old friends Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim than his new relationship with piano virtuoso Carl Tausig, a student and lifelong supporter of Liszt. Associated with the New German School, Liszt and Wagner were considered progressive for developing new genres (program symphony, music drama), innovative transformation of motives, and cyclic unifying procedures, in contrast to supposedly more conservative composers such as Brahms who favored “old” abstract forms.

In reality many innovative procedures came out of both “camps” and there was more respect than enmity between the two. The so-called conservatives did, however, complain about the tendency of Liszt and his disciples toward flashy virtuosity without substance. Thus in 1862 Brahms found himself having to explain his friendship with Tausig to Joachim:

I socialize particularly with Cornelius [another Lisztian with whom Brahms later had a falling-out] and Tausig. . . . who can doubtless accomplish more with their little finger than all the other musicians with their whole head and all of their fingers.

Against this backdrop Brahms composed his Variations on a Theme of Paganini in 1862–63 and dedicated the work to Tausig, which explains the bravura display of finger-busting pyrotechnics. Clara Schumann acknowledged the myriad challenges when Brahms sent her a copy, calling them Hexenvariationen (witches’ variations), though she added, “I have started practicing them most eagerly.” Brahms himself called attention to their exploration of pianistic techniques by calling them Studien, dividing them into two books of fourteen studies each when they were first published in 1866. That he also assigned them an opus number, however, points to the fact that he considered the work concert fare. He gave the first performance from the manuscript on November 25, 1865, in Zurich. Even though the Variations may have been written for Tausig, Brahms himself was able to surmount their difficulties in the days when he was still practicing regularly.

Brahms had been schooled in composing inventive variations for years with his teacher Eduard Marxsen, and no one was considered a finer master of the art. In this particular case he seems to have chosen his subject—Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, already a set of variations—to try to equal in difficulty for the piano what Paganini had done for the violin.

The following are just a few of the challenges Brahms sets for the pianist: parallel sixths or thirds (Book I, nos. 1 and 2, or Book II, no. 1), independent meters in the right and left hands (Book I, no. 5, and Book II, no. 7), light rapid contrary motion (Book II, nos. 8 and 11), octave glissandos (Book I, no. 13), and octave gestures that are approached and left by wide leaps (Book I, nos. 7 and 8; Book II, no. 10). Brahms was more often interested, as one commentator put it, in “marksmanship” rather than “graspmanship.” In other words, he tended toward feats a virtuoso could show off without huge hands, though the graceful waltz of Variation 4 in Book II, for example, requires a large left-hand span.

Some of the most miraculous sonorities come in quiet variations, such as the lovely filigree of Variation 12 in Book I, the feather-light arches with their impish grace notes in Variation 6 of Book II, or the cascading chains of thirds in Variation 13, Book II. Throughout Brahms constantly amazes in his ability to “make music” even while taxing the pianist’s technical abilities.

The closing variation in each book is crowned by a coda that encompasses several “études.” The first book’s coda begins loudly, dips down, then regains power in the last section; the second book’s coda begins quietly as it emerges from the variation proper, then grows in volume and texture to the end.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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