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

Beth Levin

[March 2008.]


The melody, hidden
emerges. Silk brocade drawing room
white dancing bosoms
the harpsichord’s trills transport us to a night
aswarm with sprites,
lovers, stalled clocks
legato! legato!
a triumphant fugue or Clara perhaps, wrapping Handel’s theme in last week’s gossip
knowing he’ll find it next to the tea cups.


An elegant Baroque theme eight measures long, proper, structured, lovingly ornamented. A string of 16th notes in the opening measure lends itself to an articulation of slurs and dots, reminiscent of a harpsichordist’s performance practice.

Variation I

As in the Aria, the first variation moves in scalar steps: do re mi, re, mi fa, ornamenting as it goes with staccato 16ths. The overall feeling doesn’t stray far from the Aria but new accents on the off-beats of the measure alter the rhythmic sense and accentuate the dance quality.

Variation II, animato

The melody presents itself in triplets under long slurs creating a legato sweep and departing from the more rigid dance. Each four measures of the eight-bar structure is repeated throughout the work and one looks to the bass line and other voices to illuminate the second time around.

Variation III, piano dolce

Quick two-note slurs, single note to chord, prance by with an occasional rolled chord for sweet insistence. The simplicity of the harmony can be heard almost as a skeletal structure upon which Brahms will soon create new palettes of emotion.

Variation IV, risoluto

A powerful variation, it departs from the dainty Aria by virtue of sforzandi, octaves, large chords, and most of all, speed. A new emotional terrain opens up a romantic quality, richer than the original. We realize that Brahms will transform Handel’s theme.

Variation V — espressivo, B-flat minor

A legato variation in minor, the melody is poignant, pulling and sad. The bass provides constant movement and a tied note at the top of each arpeggiated figure adds to the sense of suspended resolution and longing.

Variation VI

Continuing in B flat minor, Variation six is a canon in octaves. The mirroring of each hand begins almost immediately, after the downbeat. This interweaving of the two voices provides shape, interest and momentum.

Variation VII, con vivacita

What excitement! Fast, lithe, pointed, the music bristles and romps in 16ths. The staccato notes, chords, accents, innate lilt, and beautifully shaped inner voices meld into rhythmic and melodic precision.

Variation VIII

High spirits continue and heighten. The repetitive bass line composed of a B-flat in an eighth and 16th pattern maintains its gallop to the end. The movement’s physicality is close to palpable.

Variation IX, poco sostenuto

Like a grand organ, Variation nine pulls back from the edge and moves regally through time. Long slurs, resonant whole notes, pedal and slowly molded octave writing create a held (sostenuto) feeling, never moving quickly lest the grandeur evaporate. Triplets progress like snails through sand, forming the musical line’s most expressive aspect.

Variation X

Variation nine stretches time. Variation 10 emits a crazy energy, the triplets barely retaining traces of their now-distant cousins. They fly and scamper, propelling the music. Staccati replace slurred notes, with quicksilver embellishments and rolled chords exaggerating the downbeats. An insistent B-flat in four eighths is a call from the past and a bridge to the music that lies ahead.

Variation XI

Gentle as a lamb. The naïve bass line of 16ths, marked dolce, against the limpid melody speaks tenderly. The back and forth of major chord, minor chord adds poignancy. When the melody shifts to the bass in the second half one envisions a cello in full vibrato. Mirroring 16ths, bass to treble and back, escorts the variation to a playful end.

Variation XII

A sensitive atmosphere persists as two-note slur figures throughout the variation. What is more touching than these tiny, frail slurs like the cooing of doves. The markings soave and pp confine the music to a delicate utterance.

Variation XIIILargamente, ma non piu

Gone are the poppy field. The texture is thick, the key minor. Chords marked espressivo and forte anchor the pulse, and as in Variation nine, rather than leap, triplets burrow through time. The dance is pesante. One senses Hungarian color in each five-note turn and flourish.

Variation XIV

Chords in sixths descend from a high B-flat, trill rapidly and, unencumbered, bespeak freedom. The music offers a perfect release from Variation 13’s weighty chords. The major mode, expressive trills on each downbeat, and the bass line’s running notes lead to a joyous outpouring.

Variation XV

Here the opening 16ths remind us of the Aria’s slurred and dotted articulation. The mood is exuberant still, unrestrained. The f to g-flat octaves in the second half exert a particular pull, owing perhaps to a diminished chord’s suggestiveness and always-expressive slurs.

Variation XVI

We hear a 16th-note pattern similar to that which wove through Variation 15. Conversely, Variation 16 is marked piano, lending a lighter, less dramatic air to the music. One senses variations in pairs that complement each other along with other pairs: startling contrasts.

Variation XVII, piu mosso

Accompanied by staccato eighths in the treble, the bass holds the more expressive line. An Interlude in feeling, its simplicity of structure, of rhythm and design, propels the narrative economically.

Variation XVIII

A graceful variation, it crisscrosses musical lines. Descending arpeggios in the treble begun in the opening measure are taken over by the bass in the second; alternately, the bass line of quarter notes continues in the treble. The intricate puzzle results in an elegant, lilting dance even as the still-intact harmonic framework remains rooted in the Aria.

Variation XIX, leggiero e vivace

A dotted eighth and 16th figure predominates, with a charming turn on first and third beats. An accented final beat appears, adding punch — boots against floorboards. A childlike quality prevails.

Variation XX

A chromatic chordal line glides forward in legato, in obedience to the crescendo markings. One must always come back to piano at the start of each phrase or risk the desired forte too often and too soon. The chordal writing’s contrast to Variation 19 leads the ear to thicker colors and textures.

Variation XXI

Triplets above 16ths in the bass create an urgency, with quick grace notes for every downbeat emphasizing the important “one” of a triplet. Brahms indicates piano dolce, emphasizing the music after the double bar with espressivo. The innate sorrowfulness of the key of G-minor (the relative key to B-flat major) is offset by flowing 16ths and triplets.

Variation XXII

Accented chords in perpetual motion give an impression of a running motor. A lithe melody sings above the workings. The variation is written in piano, and all in treble clef never dipping under B-flat below middle C. One imagines a toy clock that begins to falter and, by the final measures, stop.

Variation XXIII

Brahms launches a push to the Fugue with surging triplets marked staccato and piano, yet powerful nonetheless. Accents provide even more oomph. In the B section, chromatic harmonies, coupled with crescendi from p to f in spurts, intensify the drama. I recall this fragment in Brahms’ B-flat Piano Concerto, no less passionate in this context.

Variation XXIV

The driving force has shifted to a short, six-note fragment, starting softly, with fits of crescendi. Some culminate in a staccato chord, giving the music its wildness, followed by yet another resembling shouts. As in Variation 20, the climax occurs at the final measure, where the sound sustains at forte, the solid harmony returning to B-flat major.

Variation XXV

Jagged fortissimo chords in both hands play off each other: Even as notes on the page, the variation takes no prisoners. Variation 4 has the feel of a similar dare. From the first note, speed, drive and power dominate. Challenges notwithstanding, one must envision a controlled abandon. Absent a fermata at the final measure, or another marking permitting a breath, one leaps into the Fugue.


The scholar Joseph Dillon Ford writes:

“The subject is announced in the alto, soprano, bass, and tenor voices in rapid succession, after which Brahms forges ahead in perpetual motion ultimately abandoning any strict adherence to the initial four-voice texture. The subject and its countersubject subsequently recur in a dazzling variety of guises. The subject is melodically altered, augmented, inverted, and even quadrupled and set against itself in contrary motion, all in a complex texture relentlessly exploiting rapid-fire double notes and octaves.”

One finds fragments of Handel’s theme forming the substance of Brahms’ fugue, the opening three 16ths and quarter and a second motive appearing in measure one, beat three. But Brahms is never derivative and reaches heights of inspired genius as he recreates Handel’s air. Handel had composed six variations of his own on the melody. We discover a composer reworking older forms and molding new ones for his art and his era.

[As usual, Beth’s expert map makes one crave a listen. Standard picks involve a package deal — two CDs for Fleisher, Katchen or Kovacevich, five for Kempff. Rudolf Serkin was a master of the score, and his 1979 studio taping is on Sony SK 93447 (with Piano Concerto No. 1). A 1957 live date in decent mono lives on Urania. W.M.]


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