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Variations on an original theme, Op 21 No 1
?1855/7; published in 1861

'Brahms: The Complete Variations' (CDA67777)
Brahms: The Complete Variations
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Variations on an original theme, Op 21 No 1
The Variations on a Hungarian Song were published together with the more extended and sophisticated Variations on an Original Theme, Op 21 No 1. Like its companion, this is certainly an earlier piece than its opus number would suggest, but the exact date has remained elusive. All we know for sure is that it is later than 1854 (and therefore than the Op 9 Schumann Variations), but most probably it dates from the difficult years 1855–7 when Brahms, frustrated with what seemed to him the shortcomings of his compositional technique, turned out a large number of vocal and instrumental pieces which attempted to assimilate the lessons he derived from the study of earlier masters. Op 21 No 1 is a searching and personal creation of considerable poetry and substance, yet it belongs to this general orbit insofar as it investigates and seeks mastery over new aspects of variation-technique. The predominant mood is lyrical yet pensive, and we seem to glimpse the composer communing with himself.

The theme is a beautiful melody in D major, presented in a rich contrapuntal setting that leaves it almost over-supplied with possibilities. However, Brahms concentrates on the theme’s harmonic structure to provide a framework for fresh invention—though paradoxically the harmonic structure is itself dominated and somewhat restricted at each end of the theme by a pedal bass, whose implications are sometimes accepted and sometimes ignored. There are eleven variations, and all except the last are confined to the theme’s unusual dimensions: two nine-bar halves, each half repeated.

The first seven variations, all in D major, are quiet and introspective, featuring several technical devices that at the time were considered ‘archaic’. No 5, for instance, is a canon in contrary motion, the canon moving a bar closer in the variation’s second half. The bareness and angularity of No 7, an even stricter canon, with its wide leaps for both hands, almost looks like Webern on the page. With No 8, a vigorous study in martial dotted rhythms, the pace increases and the tonality shifts to the minor. The next variation forms the dynamic climax, turning the pedal bass into rumbling drum effects to bolster emphatic chordal writing. From here the music subsides uneasily to variation 11, which returns to D major and to the original tempo of the theme, then opens out into an expansive coda that eventually achieves a subdued but beautiful resolution, with a final reminiscence of the theme in a lulling berceuse-like rhythm.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67777 disc 1 track 4
Recording date
8 December 2009
Recording venue
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
David Hinitt
Hyperion usage
  1. Brahms: The Complete Variations (CDA67777)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: October 2010
    2CDs for the price of 1
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