Brahms - 16 Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op. 9
Julius Katchen, piano
By May of 1854 Robert Schumann was an asylum inmate, and Clara had given birth to their seventh child. The family began to increasingly rely on the friendship of the young Johannes Brahms, who helped to care for the children and manage Schumann’s business and artistic affairs. Over the course of that summer, Brahms brought to Clara in piecemeal a series of variations on a theme from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, Op. 9, which Clara had previously used as the subject for her own Op. 20 variations.
I have written here before that this is unquestionably my favorite set of variations for the piano. The theme, which is presented unaltered, is so characteristic of the ailing Schumann; and Brahms’ treatment of it is extremely sensitive and poignant, twisting through various shades of melancholy and despair before gently and gradually coming to a quiet, and, one feels, hopeful resolution.
The set is full of allusions to Schumann’s work. Variation IX is patterned after Schumann’s Album Leaf in B minor, Variation X subtly recalls Schumann’s A minor quartet as well as a theme from another composition which Schumann had borrowed from his wife, and Variation XIV derives its texture and contour from the Chopin movement of Schumann’s Carnaval. It is a deeply moving tribute to the Schumann family, and an extraordinary display of the 21-year-old composer’s intellectual power and emotional maturity—and few indeed are the pieces in the repertoire with such a central and personal place in the living history of the art.