Some thoughts on Brahms Handel-variations

As a teenager I used to listen a lot to Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel. I’m pretty sure it was part of a Walter Klein disc of Brahms and I loved the whole thing.

However it’s not a piece I have listened to much over the intervening 30+ years. Yet I heard it in a masterclass at the Oxford Philomusica’s Piano Festival and Summer Academy on Monday and I remembered my youthful love for it.

I’m not studying it and don’t have time for a complete analysis but here are some random thoughts that came to mind.

Variety and constraint – within the first few variations Brahms maximises the variety of textures, figuration, style, rhythm and dynamics and shows both diatonic and chromatic harmony. This is the calling card of a young man, possibly one showing off to cover up some insecurity. I am reminded of another young man’s music – Handel’s Dixit Dominus where he puts all his cards on the table in an uninhibited way.

Brahms lets variation-form impose boundaries on him – each variation except one has the same number of bars, he restricts himself to B-flat major and B-flat minor with just one variation outside these keys, the harmony of theme and its melodic-pattern are almost always there somewhere. It’s clear that Brahms enjoyed the discipline of fugues, variations and passacaglias. One only has to think of the passacaglias in the 4th Symphony and the Haydn Variations and the fugues in the German Requiem.

I was also reminded of the Goldberg variations – I do not know if Brahms knew these – and the Beethoven Diabelli varations – I have the CD but know them hardly at all.

Structure – variations 23 and 24 build in excitement and there is a tremendous sense of arrival and maybe even completness or homecoming when variation 25 starts off ff in B-flat major. In the fugue Brahms goes through various keys perhaps to make a contrast with the preceeding variations and employs the usual devices of augmentation and inversion.

Brahms’ Style – I’m sure study would reveal many similarities between these variations and his later works. I’ll simply compare the dominant pedal in the fugue which jumps octaves with that in the opening cadenza to the 2nd concerto.

It was a great experience to hear this piece again after so many years.