Classical Music | Piano Music

Johannes Brahms

Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24  Play

Samuel Deason Piano

Recorded on 09/24/2014, uploaded on 03/19/2015

Musician's or Publisher's Notes

Known as a champion of traditional forms and pure music, it was the Handel Variations of Johannes Brahms that inspired Richard Wagner - himself a proponent of inventive forms and tonalities - to remark “One sees what still may be done in the old forms when      someone comes along who knows how to use them.”  A comment such as this cannot be understated, given it was made at a time of tense musical politics and disagreement     between the supporters of traditional music and the avant-garde.  It could only have been by sheer compositional brilliance that Wagner was able to share his admiration.

The theme begins with a direct quote from Handel’s Suite in B-flat Major (HWV 434), with each 4-bar section being repeated.  Brahms’ part of the composition begins with the first of twenty-five variations, however, Variation I is not apparently Brahmsian – instead – more of a commentary on the previous theme, still in the old style of Handel.  The composition then evolves, although with heavy compositional limitations in place.  For instance, almost every variation is in two parts, with each part being repeated.Furthermore, almost every variation is in B-flat, save for a rare few appearances of the tonic minor.  These limits serve the purpose of musical unity, tension, and expectation, when they are enforced, and result in some of the most unexpectedly sublime moments when disregarded.  Momentum is artfully created, subdued, re-energized, and drawn to a variation of inevitable triumph before the fugue interrupts.  As if all possible emotions had been saved for this time, the subject of the fugue is repeated in almost every possible way, through countless textures, keys, colors, characters, and rhythmic multipliers. Having said so much, it appears to lose its own way, only to eventually find itself in one of the most triumphant celebrations of a finale ever to be written.       Samuel Deason



Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24      Johannes Brahms

Brahms completed the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel in September 1861. It was published with no dedication but it was given as a birthday gift to Clara Schumann and the original manuscript bears the title “Variations for a beloved friend.” This piece is a grand testament to Brahms’ remarkable proficiency in the Classical tradition of composition. The choice of the Baroque theme, the strictness of the variations and the incredible display of contrapuntal technique in the fugue all point to Brahms’ never-ending study of the music of past periods. The variation form itself was also a form in which Brahms developed a supreme mastery of and this is nowhere more evident than in the grand variation sets from the middle of his career. Despite its deep-rooted stance in tradition, the Handel Variations even managed to impress Wagner. Arnold Schoenberg later called it “properly understood good old tradition” and the great music writer Donald Tovey numbered it among “the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written.”

      The piece is set out on a grand scale and it is clear that Brahms was in some way influenced by Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The piece consists of twenty-five variations on Handel’s theme and a concluding fugue that forms the climax of the piece. The theme, itself, is from the Air with Variations from Handel’s first B flat Harpsichord Suite, of which Brahms owned a 1733 First Edition. The theme is simple, structurally and harmonically, making it the perfect candidate for variations. Brahms confines himself to the formal outlines of Handel’s tune, often including the exact repetition of each half, and also uses exclusively the original key of B-flat, with some occasional excursions into the tonic minor. While this may seem like strenuous restraints to place upon oneself, it provides a convincing structural unity to the work and it gives Brahms the freedom to explore many different characters throughout the work. The final fugue is colossal. Its contrapuntal complexity recalls more the image of Bach than Handel, and the “open” form of the fugue gives it a strong resemblance to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. Denis Matthews compares it to the organ works of Bach, stating that it bears more in common with those fugues than anything in the Well-Tempered Clavier.

     The Handel Variations established Brahms as one of the foremost composers for piano during the Romantic and a staunch proponent of Classical tradition. Along with the following Paganini Variations, Brahms showed himself as the supreme Romantic, bridging the gap between tradition and the unbridled Romantic spirit.       Joseph DuBose