Recording: Martin Jones, pianist [NI 1788]

Published 1861.

Although published as “No. 1,” this set of independent piano variations--the only one on a theme of Brahms’s own devising--was certainly composed a few years later than the “Hungarian Song” set published as “No. 2.”  The two sets work well when performed together, as they share a central key.  The “Hungarian Song” set can function as an extroverted “encore” to the more introspective and longer “Original Theme” set.  The “Variations on an Original Theme” were probably composed in the late 1850s, partly as an exercise in variation technique.  Brahms set several challenges for himself in devising the theme.  The irregular lengths of each repeated half--nine bars each--remain mostly consistent through the variations, lending stability and recognition as other elements range farther from the theme.  Also, in beginning the first half and ending the second half with a sustained “pedal” bass, he created implications that are sometimes followed closely, sometimes taken to great extremes (as in Variation 3, where the sustained bass is extended throughout), and sometimes ignored.  Of the variations, the very sophisticated “canon in contrary motion” of No. 5 is perhaps the most distinctive.  Also of note are the very sparsely textured No. 7 and the agitated trio of variations in the minor key (Nos. 8-10) that precede the final variation and finale.  The low trill of the last variation takes the sustained bass to its logical conclusion.  The coda, which artfully develops a two-note element from the theme, is one of the most exceedingly beautiful passages in the solo piano music.  Of Brahms’s other Variation sets, the “Schumann” set (Op. 9) is probably closest in character to this one.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition from Brahms-Institut Lübeck--also includes most of Op. 21, No. 2, but the last two pages are cut off)

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)

NOTE: In this recording, Variations 8-11 are on a new CD track/file.
0:00 [m. 1]--THEMA.  Poco larghetto.  D MAJOR, 3/8 time.  Part 1.  The richly harmonized theme is obviously written specifically for variations, containing such recognizable devices as sequential repetition of patterns.  Its essential character is defined by its two nine-bar halves, each with an upbeat.  The first four bars form a clear-cut phrase.  Brahms avoids the traditional eight bars by stretching out the second phrase (which begins with a faster “turning” figure) to five bars.  The penultimate bar [m. 8] is an unexpected sequential repetition of the pattern in m. 7 (long-short-short-short with rolled chords).  The theme is strongly played, but expressive and smooth.  Part 1 moves, expectedly, to the “dominant” key of A major.
0:24 [m. 1]--Part 1 repeated.
0:45 [m. 10]--Part 2.  The rich harmonies continue, particularly the active middle voice in the tenor range.  The second half begins with a motion to the minor key that includes two prominent “turning” figures.  There is then a bright emergence in the home major for the second phrase with the long-short-short-short patterns.  This phrase is elongated to five bars by unexpectedly stretching out a descent to the final, very satisfying cadence.  The entire length, as in Part 1, is nine bars with two phrases of four and five bars.
1:09 [m. 10]--Part 2 repeated.
1:34 [m. 19]--VARIATION 1.  3/8 time.  Part 1.  Brahms strips the theme of its harmonies and reduces it to a flowing bass line, marked to be played very quietly and smoothly.  For the second phrase, an upper line is added in the right hand, marked teneramente (tenderly).  Brahms indicates which pitches are more “melodic” and should be emphasized, such as the upbeats.  Except for those upbeats, the bass line and the upper line move in opposite directions “outward” and back in (contrary motion).
1:54 [m. 19]--Part 1 repeated.
2:13 [m. 28]--Part 2.  The pattern is as in Part 1.  The first phrase, with the turn to the minor key, is a single flowing bass line.  An upper voice is added for the second phrase, but it enters a bit early and tentatively, in the last bar of the first phrase.  There is even more quieting at the end as Brahms inserts a “hemiola,” grouping notes in fours instead of sixes and implying a large 3/4 bar superimposed on two 3/8 measures.
2:32 [m. 28]--Part 2 repeated.
2:51 [m. 37]--VARIATION 2.  Più moto.  3/8 time.  Part 1.  Although it should be slightly faster, this variation is most effective when it follows Variation 1 immediately without pause.  A bass line similar to what was just heard in Variation 1 accompanies a rapturous rising melody in very smooth long-short patterns.  The melody is harmonized below, largely in fourths and sixths.  There is no upbeat.
3:06 [m. 37]--Part 1 repeated.
3:20 [m. 46]--Part 2.  The melody retains its rapt character even during the turn to the minor key.  The long-short patterns are broken in the second phrase in order to allow a more distinct closing to the variation.  The flowing bass line continues unabated.  The closing harmonies are altered slightly.
3:35 [m. 46]--Part 2 repeated after a bridge in the left hand.  This is omitted at the end of the repetition.
3:52 [m. 55]--VARIATION 3.  3/8 time.  Part 1.  In another reduction of the theme to simple elements, the harmonies are isolated into syncopated, resolving pairs of chords beginning on the upbeats of measures and held over until the second beat of the following bars.  The pattern is only broken on the fourth group, which moves on the downbeat.  The left hand plays two-note groups with pedal bass support on the downbeats.
4:11 [m. 55]--Part 1 repeated.
4:30 [m. 64]--Part 2.  The syncopated patterns continue for the first phrase, which quiets and slows slightly.  In the second phrase, internal or lower right hand voices move on the downbeats under the held top notes.  The left hand patterns also change from the downbeat groups to short-long upbeat resolutions.
4:49 [m. 64]--Part 2 repeated.
5:11 [m. 73]--VARIATION 4.  3/8 time.  Part 1.  Over a steadily throbbing bass pedal note on a low D, the right hand plays two-note or two-chord phrases  These either ascend or descend, sometimes alternating.  Sometimes the harmonies are held under the two top notes.  The left hand also joins with these two-note phrases over its pedal bass note.  These are mostly descending, except in the third and fourth bars.  The bass note moves down in the last two bars of Part 1.  The character is again very relaxed, smooth, and sonorous.
5:29 [m. 73]--Part 1 repeated.
5:45 [m. 82]--Part 2.  The two-note or two-chord phrases resume again over the low pedal D, and they move to the minor key, as would be expected.  The bass note moves down to C (with the left hand’s two-note groups under it) in the third and fourth bars.  In these bars, the right hand two-note groups also move under their harmonies.  The bass then remains on D until the end, sometimes shifting up and down an octave.  In this last phrase, the right hand chords leap joyously until their descent and slowing at the end.
6:02 [m. 82]--Part 2 repeated.
6:20 [m. 91]--VARIATION 5.  Tempo di tema.  3/8 time.  Part 1.  The variation is marked Canone in moto contrario, which means that it is a canon in contrary motion.  The strict imitation has the left hand following the right at the distance of two bars and moving in the exact opposite direction.  The opening left hand notes under the melody in the first two bars are longer and not part of the canon.  Brahms adds new dimensions to the canon by writing the leading and following voices in different rhythms.  The right hand plays only the melody in straight rhythm, harmonized after five bars.  The left hand places the melody on the first and third notes of triplet groups.  The middle notes of these, not part of the canon, are low notes, repeated in groups of three.  More notes fill in the triplets when the imitating note is longer.  The very tender canonic melody begins with an upbeat that is held in syncopation over the downbeat.  The syncopation is lessened later on.
6:42 [m. 91 (100)]--Part 1 repeated.  The first ending is an “extension.”  The right hand begins its repetition as the left hand completes the canon on the first part, taking two bars to “catch up.”  The right hand adds another middle voice in counterpoint that is not part of the canon.  After completing the canon, the left hand canon voice drops out for a bar, but the triplets continue below.  After two bars, both hands move back to m. 93 for a literal repeat through m. 98.  The last bar of Part 1 (m. 99) is altered in the repeat, already moving to minor in the continuous flow.
7:02 [m. 100]--Part 2.  The first bars of Part 2 replace the first versions of mm. 100-101 that led into the repeat while the left hand finished the canon.  Again, the left hand completes its imitation of Part 1, but now the right hand begins the new material of part 2 at the same time with another upbeat syncopation.  It is harmonized from the outset.  Instead of resting for a bar, as it did before the repeat of Part 1, the left hand now begins its imitation immediately, so that for Part 2, the imitation is at the distance of one bar rather than two.  The left hand still uses the triplet rhythm.  There is a large buildup during Part 2, the first major increase of volume in the variations.
7:23 [m. 100 (109)]--Part 2 repeated.  The right hand repetition begins as the left hand finishes the last bar of imitation, quieting quickly.  Then everything is repeated literally from m. 101.  After the full repetition, an extra bar is needed for the left hand to finish.  A bar is added, but the left hand does not really complete the canon.  Instead, the bar (m. 109), with descending chords and triplets, bridges to Variation 6.
7:47 [m. 110]--VARIATION 6.  Più moto.  3/8 time.  Part 1.  After the slower Variation 5, this one picks up speed and is played at the same tempo as Variations 2-4.  The triplets from the left hand of Variation 5, however, continue in this variation.  It is expressive and joyous, the triplet rhythms undulating beautifully in both hands with oscillating patterns.  There is a small buildup in volume.
8:02 [m. 110 (119)]--Part 1 repeated.  The first bar is slightly altered to facilitate the continuing flow.
8:17 [m. 119]--Part 2.  The triplets continue as Part 2 moves to minor.  The right hand moves very high, and the left hand arpeggios become quite wide-reaching, spanning the low bass and treble registers.  There is no buildup, and in fact the ending diminishes slightly.
8:32 [m. 119]--Part 2 repeated.  There is a slowing as well as a diminishing at the end.
8:48 [m. 128]--VARIATION 7.  Andante con moto.  2/4 time.  Part 1.  The first change in meter occurs with this variation.  Variation 6 flows directly into it.  It is very spare in texture.  Dotted (long-short) rhythms are used throughout.  Widely spaced leaps alternate between the hands, shorter notes leaping to longer ones in jumps of an octave or greater.  Even the first note is a leap up from the short last note of Variation 6.  These short-long leaps in the hands cross beats and bar lines.  The aural result gives almost no indication of the extremely unusual notation in the score, which was surely Brahms’s intent.  There are two gradual motions upward, the second reaching higher than the first.  All remains at a quiet level.
9:04 [m. 128]--Part 1 repeated.
9:20 [m. 137]--Part 2.  The large short-long leaps continue with the motion to minor and back, again with two gradual general ascents.  There is a diminishing at the end, then a bridge to the repeat.
9:38 [m. 137]--Part 2 repeated, without the bridge at the end and with a slowing along with the diminishing.  The end of this variation is marked with a pause, the only such marking in the variations.
9:59--END OF TRACK.  Variation 8 begins with a new track. 0:00 on this track would be 10:00 in the overall time structure.  Add 10:00 to the times below to integrate them into the variations as a whole.
0:00 [m. 146]--VARIATION 8.  Allegro non troppo.  D MINOR, 2/4 time.  Part 1.  The first of three minor-key variations, all in 2/4.  They represent the climax of the work.  Although it is faster and in an angry, agitated minor mode, the rhythm patterns are actually those of the serene Variation 7.  Each hand plays an upbeat, then a downbeat, alternating with the other hand.  Each beat is split into four notes, the first and fourth taken by the right hand and the second and third by the left.  A right-hand upbeat before the first bar begins the motion.  The right hand plays the broken melody, supported by chords.  The left hand punctuates this with block octaves, sometimes leaping as much as a full octave for each group of two.  The right hand begins in the lower tenor range, then works upward rapidly.  There is a crescendo from an already loud level, then a small diminishing and descent for the repeat or the beginning of Part 2.
0:12 [m. 146]--Part 1 repeated.
0:23 [m. 155]--Part 2.  The rhythm patterns and divisions between the hands continue.  There is an even greater crescendo than in Part 1.  Since the variation is already in minor, the harmonic divergences of Part 2 are different, suggesting F minor and B-flat minor.  The top of the crescendo is marked by a chromatic half-step ascent in the top voice of the right hand chords, reaching to the variation’s highest notes.  This ascent is a prolonged version of the motion back to major from the original theme.  In order to maximize the climax, Brahms extends Part 2 by one bar, to ten bars total.  It flows directly into Variation 9.
0:36 [m. 155]--Part 2 repeated.
0:49 [m. 165]--VARIATION 9.  D MINOR, 2/4 time.  Part 1.  The “Allegro non troppo” of Variation 8 remains in force.  This works to an even greater level of intensity than Variation 8.  Low octave tremolos on the first beat of each bar alternate with powerful, hammer-like detached chords in both hands on the second beat.  This is broken in the fourth, eighth and ninth bars, when the right hand breaks into powerful leaping descents through the whole measure.  The low bass tremolos remain on D for the first phrase, them to other notes in the last five bars.  An extra tremolo is added before the ninth bar, where both hands make extremely wide, treacherous leaps in opposite directions.  The level is forceful throughout.
1:05 [m.  165 (174)]--Part 1 repeated.  The first bar is suddenly softer, allowing for another buildup.
1:21 [m. 174]--Part 2.  The pattern is continued with the first four-bar phrase.  The low bass tremolos move.  The second (five-bar) phrase begins in F-sharp minor with the most powerful climax of the variations.  The right hand breaks into continuous octaves and chords, and the left hand plays two low tremolos per bar.  Accents are heavy and there is a precipitous downward drive, turning quickly back up at the end.  In the seventh bar (m. 180), the tremolos settle on low D.  The return to D mixes major and minor, and the last chord is surprisingly major.  A quick descent in octaves bridges to the repeat.
1:36 [m. 174]--Part 2 repeated.  The variation comes to a complete close with an emphatic bass tremolo.
1:54 [m. 183]--VARIATION 10.  D MINOR, 2/4 time.  Part 1.  The “Allegro non troppo” presumably remains in force, but this variation, while very agitated, is more restrained than the preceding two.  The right hand plays a broad, passionate melody beginning with a rolled chord.  The rolled chord also begins the second phrase.  Each phrase ends with an inner-voice triplet.  Against this melody, the left hand plays upward scurrying six-note figures beginning and ending just off the beat.  For the first phrase, these are identical in each bar.  They begin to move away in the second phrase, but the basic pattern, where the last two notes are an octave higher than the first two, is mostly preserved (except in m. 189).
2:07 [m. 183 (192)]--Part 1 repeated.  The first bar is altered, with a thinner opening chord.
2:18 [m. 192]--Part 2.  The first bar is identical to the one that began the repeat of Part 1.  The patterns continue in the left hand, only the third bar (m. 194) making a turn at the end.  The right hand melody is similar to Part 1.  The inner voice at the end of the first phrase, which briefly moves to F major, does not include a triplet rhythm, as in Part 1, instead sliding up to the high point at the beginning of the second phrase.  This phrase quickly diminishes, breaking into syncopated, chromatic chords in its third bar (m. 198).  The melancholy final cadence in D minor slows slightly, but is loudly interrupted by the repeat.
2:31 [m. 192 (201)]--Part 2 repeated.  The opening chord is rolled and full, similar to the one at the beginning of the variation.  After this first bar, the variation continues as before.  The closing cadence, which slows greatly, is again interrupted, the music instead flowing directly into Variation 11.  This greatly increases the sense of tension and anticipation as the final variation begins.
2:48 [m. 201]--VARIATION 11.  Tempo di tema, poco più lento.  D MAJOR, 3/8 time.  Part 1.  The tempo, major mode, and triple meter of the original theme return for this final variation, which emerges warmly out of the interrupted cadence of Variation 10.  It begins quietly and mysteriously.  The left hand plays a low trill on D.  Above this, the right hand plays a harmonized melody highly reminiscent of, but not identical to the original theme.  The left hand trill slides down chromatically in the last three bars.  Reaching a low A in the last bar, it then jumps two octaves on the second and third beats, closing itself off with a turn.
3:08 [m. 210]--Part 1, Varied repeat.  The left hand trill is the same, but it is transposed up two octaves.  The motion at the end is preserved, but the ending A falls by an octave.  The right hand is very different.  It is much higher, and an inner voice in triplet rhythm is added to the melody.  The melody itself becomes extremely expressive.  Light syncopations are added before the second phrase.  The second phrase is more active, adding long-short rhythms that follow the triplets in the inner voice.  A precipitous arpeggio in the last bar leads to Part 2.
3:28 [m. 219]--Part 2.  The left hand trill moves back down to the low octaves.  The trill moves down in the second bar (m. 220), then slides back up, where it remains on the low D, jumping two octaves at the end.  As in earlier variations, there is a turn to minor.  The right hand has a new texture.  It plays a series of double thirds in the middle range against a syncopated upper line.  The fourth bar briefly breaks this.  The two right hand lines come together in the last three bars, where the thirds are expanded to sixths.
3:47 [m. 228]--Part 2, Varied repeat.  As in the repeat of Part 1, the right hand inner voice is now in triplets.  The top voice breaks into long-short rhythms following the triplets.  The right hand is much higher, as in the repeat of Part 1.  The left hand trill is again two octaves higher, but moves up in the second bar before sliding back down to the D, in a reversal of the first statement of Part 2.  It drops down an octave at the end.
4:08 [m. 237]--EXTENSION/CODA.  The end of Variation 11 “proper” tentatively hints at an upbeat.  The coda begins as an extension to the variation.  The left hand breaks its trill, emerging into arpeggios similar to those heard in Variation 1.  The right hand, marked molto espressivo, plays upward floating two-note gestures, punctuated by broken triplet rhythms (lacking downbeats) in an inner voice.  These go against the straight rhythm of the left hand arpeggios.  The top melody breaks into a more flowing line, moving down and back up, after four bars.  The passage is like the first part of a new variation.
4:27 [m. 246]--In a varied repeat of the preceding passage, the upward floating two-note gestures in the right hand are now played in octaves, and the inner voice in triplets is omitted.  The right hand octaves diverge from the melody of the preceding passage somewhat, adding downward motion by half-steps and then going back to two-note gestures at the end that leap down rather than up.  The left hand arpeggios are doubled in speed through notes half as long, creating a sense of urgency and forward motion that is reflected in a large crescendo.  This gradually abates at the end.  An extension to twelve bars brings syncopated repeated octaves, slowing, and diminishing.
4:51 [m. 258]--Tempo I.  Brahms speeds back up to the original tempo of the theme.  A repeated pulsation is established in the middle, with bass chords in the middle of bars..  The upward floating gestures in the right hand resume, developing into a rapturous melody after four bars.  The pulsations in the middle grow thicker, using both hands, and the bass moves to single notes on the downbeats.
5:08 [m. 266]--The cadence is interrupted by a repeat of the harmonies and pulsations from 4:51 [m. 258].  The preceding passage is slightly varied, with thicker chords in the middle pulsations and two-note upbeat groups in the left hand.  The rapturous melody from the fifth bar is transferred to the left hand in the middle range, the upper voice expanding outward.  There is a crescendo to the high point, where the top voice breaks into descending syncopation and the main melody in the left hand reaches a climax with rolled octaves.  The passage is then extended by four bars as it gradually abates.  The middle pulsations continue.
5:35 [m. 278]--The delayed cadence of the preceding passage leads into the final quiet, gentle epilogue.  The left hand arpeggios from Variation 1 return, arching down and up in each bar.  The right hand plays two-note short-long gestures, both floating upward and falling down.  These are punctuated by syncopated chords in the middle, also played by the right hand.  The two-note gestures fall below the syncopations, now on octave D’s, after four bars, where they are repeated an octave lower.  They then dissipate into pulsing harmonies as the syncopated octaves are reduced to a single note.  The left hand arpeggios and the syncopated D’s continue until the transfigured closing chord.
6:28 (16:28 total)--END OF VARIATIONS [289 mm.]