Hidden Gems: Brahms – Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1

Johannes Brahms loved variation form. This is clear from the number of standalone variation sets he composed, as well as the numerous times he turned to variation form for a movement of a sonata or other work. All of these pieces are quite fine, but there’s something about Op. 21, No. 1 that I keep coming back to. Most of its duration occupies an inward, searching space that’s really appealing and hard to leave. Also notable is Brahms’s choice to write an original theme, rather than meditate on a tune of Handel, Haydn, Paganini, or his friend Robert Schumann (that particular set is also very personal, for different specific reasons). The other half of Op. 21 is yet another set, the energetic Variations on a Hungarian Folk Song.

There’s a bigger context to Brahms’ variation explorations. He made no secret that he felt the weight of Beethoven’s shadow, and this piece may have been an attempt to truly master a form for which Beethoven had set an extremely high bar. The Arietta from Beethoven’s Op. 111 sonata is the most advanced and transcendent of all his variations, but Brahms, in his Variations on an Original Theme, achieved some of the same consoling, spirit-cleansing effects as that piece.

Theme. Larghetto in 3/8, with large chords occupying both hands at times. From beginning to end, it seems to move from a gentle lullaby to a heroic statement of purpose. It’s eighteen bars long, with two repeated sections of nine bars each (note the irregular phrase lengths). Ten of the eighteen bars feature a D pedal in the bass. This speaks to another Brahms signature: a preoccupation with pedal bass. The best example that comes to mind is the D major pedal fugue in the Requiem. I really like how the climax into the last D-pedal pad arrives on a D-dominant chord, rather than a simple D major. It opens up the music and accentuates the yearning quality.

Var. 1. The sixteenth-note arpeggio figure in the left hand would sound great on a cello, and moves in sequences that would make Bach proud. The cello is soon joined by a violin, and they do an elegant, mostly contrary-motion dance in clean two-voice counterpoint.

Var. 2. The cello line continues, with chords in the right hand emphasizing strong beats.

Var. 3. Brahms breaks the theme down into a series of concise cadences with staggered entrances. Suspension, resolution. Rinse, repeat.

Var. 4. A new, active sixteenth-note chordal pattern appears. The D pedal is starting to infect more of the music now, taking up about fourteen bars total, and it’s stated as three eighth notes to a measure; an insistent timpani ostinato.

Var. 5. Brahms takes us to a surprising, intimate place with this one, constructing a canon in contrary motion. The canon is faultlessly composed, and the music it generates is almost painfully beautiful, searching high up in the treble while the bass offers subtle harmonic implications in burbling triplets. The left hand material in the B section is sort of a beta version of what turns up in Var. 11. What I love about this variation is the joining of head and heart; Brahms works through an old-school contrapuntal procedure while offering music that he marks teneramente, molto dolce, and molto espressivo.

Var. 6. A bit of an etude in triplets. The right hand plays broken octaves while the left hand moves in more free arpeggios and chromatic steps. This variation in particular highlights the theme’s quality as a series of waves, up and down.

Var. 7. Brahms strips the music down to two-voice counterpoint, with large leaps searching across the keyboard. If you thought it couldn’t get more intimate after Var. 5, Brahms will prove you wrong. The music here feels fragile but has an amazing inner strength. And in this context, the soft haze of pedal bass frames it as a frozen reverie. We’re on the verge of some kind of revelation.

Var. 8. A stormy, chordal new texture shatters the reverie. This is the first variation that begins in D minor. Dark heroism prevails.

Var. 9. The mood from Var. 8 continues, with lots of new staccato accents. The pedal bass has now turned into an ominous, trembling ostinato.

Var. 10. This completes the D minor trilogy. Chords and expressive fragments occupy the right hand while a running line snakes its way up in the bass.

Var. 11. We’re back in D major for the grand finale. Now the D pedal is a nonstop trill, and these first nine bars feel like Brahms preparing a place for a weary soul to rest. “Come,” he says. “Let the music lift your spirit.” And then the right hand takes wing with a florid triplet pattern, soaring up in the clouds. That trill in the bass (whether on D or some other note) doesn’t let up for twenty-six bars. It’s a great Beethovenian maneuver, and I can see why both Beethoven and Brahms loved the trill: it creates an unstable blur between two notes, two outcomes, like watching a butterfly in a process of transformation. The next section uses the same left hand cello-like figure from Var. 1, and then slides into a quadruplet version of the texture from Var. 5 (that now resembles bits of Beethoven’s Arietta) as the right hand mediates with some treble octaves. Those left hand figures are a beast to play, but the way they reach up into the tenor range, carving all sorts of chromatic implications, is really stunning. From there it’s a page-long coda, a slow winding down to the end, more and more consoling. I love the detail of soft offbeat D octaves toward the very end while an inner voice (I imagine it as a horn) sounds a final phrase. This whole coda evokes the feeling of finishing a good twenty-page short story or a self-contained episode of Black Mirror or something, gently easing out of the world of the piece.

Brahms really knocked it out of the park with this one. Variation form can sometimes suffer from pacing problems, but the sequence and character of these variations are exquisitely judged. Variations can also lapse into tedium with each obligatory repeat, but there’s not a moment in this piece that I wouldn’t want to hear again. Every variation offers new wisdom, new secrets, new emotions. Give this a listen and follow Brahms on this inward journey.

Where to find it in print:

51480439 Brahms: Variations Op. 21, Nos. 1 and 2 (Henle Urtext Edition)

51480440 Brahms: Variations for Piano (Henle Urtext Edition)

50261180 Brahms: Complete Works for Piano – Vol. 1 (G. Schirmer, Inc.)

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