Theme and Variations in D minor
1853 was a triumphant year for twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), the second child of a local Hamburg musician and a kindhearted woman seventeen years her husband's senior. Despite the Brahms family's meager means during Johannes' childhood, his musical gifts were developed at a young age. A piano prodigy, the young Brahms had also honed his creative talents as composer and arranger for his father's ensembles. A concert tour with Hungarian violin virtuoso Eduard Reményi in 1853 familiarized Brahms with the "alla zingarese" style and csárdás dance, elements of Hungarian folk music which would inspire the composer's propensity for triplet figures and irregular rhythms. Brahms parted from Reményi in Düsseldorf in order to meet Robert Schumann, revered as his artistic ideal, and Schumann's wife Clara, herself an eminent musician. Struck by Brahms' talents at both composition and the keyboard, Schumann trumpeted the arrival of this "young eagle" with a rhapsodic article entitled "Neue Bahnen" ("New Paths"), published in Schumann's own journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.
In 1854 his benefactor and cherished friend Robert Schumann was institutionalized, suffering from severe mental illness. During this two-year period of extreme difficulty, Brahms and Clara Schumann, fourteen years his senior, developed a passionate affection for one another. Brahms wrote in a letter to her, "Would to God that I were allowed this day . . . to repeat to you with my own lips that I am dying for love of you." Clara, however, was the wife of his friend and clung to her beloved husband with unwavering loyalty. Brahms remained with her only until Schumann died in July 1856.
After composing the Piano Concerto in D minor, Op. 15 (1857) and the Serenades in D major, Op. 11 (1857) and in A major, Op. 16 (1859), Brahms turned to chamber music for strings, a field he had not previously cultivated. We do not know what became of the discarded string quartet in B minor and the material of previous attempts were destroyed by the composer. The six movements of the D major Serenade require, according to Brahms, a "large" orchestra while the five movement A major Serenade needs a "little" orchestra. The Op. 18 Sextet in B-flat major exists as Brahms' own precursor for the Theme and Variations for Piano in D minor. The original sextet is in four movements and is scored for pairs of violins, violas and cellos. The prospects for performances were very favorable because Brahms' close friend, Joseph Joachim, was concertmaster in Hanover and could assemble and lead the needed musicians, which is precisely what happened. No classical model for a sextet was available to Brahms, and his knowledge of Boccherini's sextets cannot be assumed. He may or may not have come across the 1848 sextet by Spohr.
Many of Brahms' works are available in the original transcriptions for different instruments; his Piano Quintet, Op. 34, originally composed for string quintet and later transcribed by the composer as a sonata for two pianos confirms that Brahms himself considered the instrumental dimension as something modifiable.
In the variation set in D minor, composed on a stern binary melody of sixteen measures, Andante mà moderato in????time, we are guided into an emotionally different sphere. The variations aim at a gradual decrease of the note values from sixteenth-notes via sextuplets to thirty-second notes. Bach had applied this method to the Chaconne for Violin in D minor, which may account for Brahms' choice of key for this movement. The fourth variation is in D major and presents a new melody, while the fifth variation also in D major, produces the bagpipe effect. Restated in the coda, the theme loses its serious character, and the movement closes deftly in a march-like manner in D major.
Notes by Ileen Zovluck. © 2000 Columbia Artists Management Inc.