About this work
Composed in November 1861 and published in 1863 by J. Reiter-Biedermann in Leipzig and Winterthur, the Variations, Op. 23, were first performed on January 12, 1864, in Vienna. Brahms dedicated the set, his first piano duet, to Julie Schumann, Clara Schumann's (1819-96) daughter. Brahms later became very attached to Julie and was forced to renounce his undeclared love when she became engaged to another in 1869. Brahms sublimated his grief in his work, composing the Rhapsody for alto, male chorus, & orchestra, Op. 53 ("Alto Rhapsody").
The theme for the variations is Robert Schumann's (1810-56) so-called "Letzter Gedanke" (Last Thought), which he had jotted down with the intention of producing variations just before his attempted suicide of February 27, 1854. Schumann believed that the ghosts of Mendelssohn and Schubert had directed him to undertake the project. He composed the theme (it is actually very similar to that for the second movement of his own Violin concerto, written only months earlier) on February 17 and over the next ten days he wrote five variations on it. Then, he threw himself into the Rhine. Fishermen foiled his suicide attempt and he was taken to an asylum outside Bonn, where he stayed until his death two years later.
Brahms' variations generally trace the melodic contour of the theme, although there is more freedom here than in his earlier "Händel" Variations, Op. 24. Thus, the technique is more akin to Schumann than early Brahms, making this an appropriate homage to the older master.
The melancholy tone of Schumann's theme pervades the entire work. Throughout the Variations, Op. 23, Brahms includes the repeated second half of Schumann's theme. The melodic focus remains in the Primo throughout the theme and the first variation, in which elaborate, rapid figurations trace the outline of the theme, exaggerating its subtle arches. Melodic activity moves to the Secondo part at the beginning of the second variation, stressing the segments of the theme with a narrow range. After touching on E flat minor, the variation closes on E flat major. Harmonic adventures begin in variation No. 4, which opens and closes on E flat minor as Brahms emphasizes the falling steps of the theme in the first half, inverting them in the second. Primo and Secondo trade off while outlining the theme in the fifth variation, in B major, a pathetic key a half-step above the dominant. Brahms resolves the tension caused by B major by immediately returning to E flat in No. 6. Rising and falling half- and whole-steps become the main component of the first half of No. 7; these intervals grow larger in the second half. In No. 8, Brahms subverts the generally falling path of the theme's second half by juxtaposing a repeatedly rising line in the Primo with a falling one in the Secondo. The ninth variation expands the first part of the theme to almost unrecognizable proportions through elaborate flourishes. Brahms was dissatisfied with the tenth and final variation, boasting an extremely elaborate and busy Secondo part, and even marked his personal copy with a note to this effect. Its dotted rhythms and Moderato tempo evoke a funeral march, although of a somewhat triumphant nature. The very end constitutes the most identifiable rendition of the theme in the entire set.