Having heard a play-through of the noble slow movement of his String Sextet in B flat major, Op 18, Clara Schumann begged Brahms for a piano transcription of this movement, and he complied with the Theme and Variations in D minor in time for her birthday on 13 September 1860. Though this piano arrangement remained unpublished until after Brahms’s death, he was very fond of it. The stern, rather archaic theme and the rigid adherence of all the ensuing six variations to the theme’s dimensions, including repeats, suggest a debt to Bach, and especially to his D minor Chaconne for solo violin. But equally these variations so transform the theme, and are so rich in their contrasted sonorities, that they completely transcend the strictness of the form. The most striking inventions are probably the third variation, with its turbulent ebb and flow of rapid scales; the magniloquent fourth, which gives the theme its most impassioned expression in the major; and the sixth, which serves as a spectral coda, the theme returning as a mere shadow of itself.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010