The theme comes from the fourth of Schumann’s Op 99 Bunte Blätter—and is the same theme as Clara, herself an accomplished composer, had chosen for her own set of Variations, Op 20, composed the previous year. But it is Robert Schumann who chiefly presides over Brahms’s work: there are stylistic and textural reminiscences of several of his other works, and the variation techniques as such, based especially on the free melodic transformations of the theme or its bass in ‘fantasy’ style, show Brahms absorbing some of Schumann’s most personal innovations. (In the manuscript, though not as published, many of the individual variations are signed: the more lyrical ones with ‘B’—for Brahms—and the faster, more ardent ones with ‘Kr’—for ‘Johannes Kreisler Junior’, the romantic alter ego Brahms had invented for himself while still a teenager, after the protagonist of E T A Hoffmann’s novel Kater Murr. This is a clear emulation of Schumann’s ascription of different parts of his Davidsbündlertänze to ‘Eusebius’ and ‘Florestan’.)
The first four variations adhere to the plaintive theme’s twenty-four-bar outline, and the first eight to its key (F sharp minor); but as the work proceeds Brahms alters tonality and proportion freely. Throughout, he shows great resource in presenting a varied sequence of musical character and mood—though all is tinged with varying gradations of melancholy. Variations 1–7 make up a structural unit. Against the sadness inherent in the theme itself they make progressively more vigorous attempts towards positive activity, climaxed by the passionate Allegro of variation 6—only to be brought short by the numbed stillness of No 7. No 8 then reintroduces the theme in a serenade-like evocation of its original shape, and in the windswept variation 9 the key shifts to B minor, with an allusion to Schumann’s Bunte Blätter No 5, a companion-piece to the one from which the theme derives.
The song-like variation 10 (in the manuscript Brahms called it ‘Fragrance of Rose and Heliotrope’) brings a warm shift to D major and at its final cadence quotes the ‘Theme by Clara Wieck’ on which Schumann based his Op 5 Impromptus. The delicate variation 11 is transitional in character, leading to the staccato No 12, the toccata-like 13, and the nocturnal 14, with its close and plangent canon. The penultimate variation is an Adagio in the tonic major (though written as G flat): a long-spanned augmentation of the theme tolls out in canon between treble and bass, sonorous arpeggios spanning the divide like an Aeolian harp. Finally, variation 16 is a very slow, stark, almost skeletal coda, the melody fragmented into poignant chordal sighs, conveying a mood of infinite regret.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2010