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Reviewed by:
  • The Variations of Johannes Brahms
  • David Pacun
The Variations of Johannes Brahms. By Julian Littlewood. (Poetics of Music.) London: Plumbago Books, 2004. [xiii, 369 p. ISBN 0-9540123-4-8. $39.95.] Music examples, bibliography, indexes.

Julian Littlewood's The Variations of Johannes Brahms is the first published monograph devoted entirely to Brahms's variations. Seeing variation form as an ideal arena to explore "the stylistic and generic interplay that lay at the heart of Brahms's style" (p. 71), the author traces an array of concerns by placing the variations "in the broader contexts of affect, kinetic control, stylistic reference and intermingling, voice-leading, instrumental writing, narrative drama, rhetoric, external reference and closing strategies" (p. 1). Casting a wide net, the author hopes to avoid what he sees as the pitfalls of formalist accounts, including, to be fair, the present reviewer's dissertation.

The book is in three main sections. Part 1 develops a new typology of variation form by attending to theme "context" (p. 10), which is seen to supercede the more standard dialectic between constant and changing elements. Beginning with "chosen" and "invented" themes and building upon the idea that "to borrow another's music ... is to express an agendum" (p. 9), chapter 1 divides the corpus of variations on chosen themes according to several main contexts, including chorale, national, secular, historical, recycled (i.e. Schubert's variations built upon his own Lied), modeled, and adapted. Chapter 2 unfolds a similar course for invented themes, although context here raises complex issues. Invented themes built from ciphers offers one logical category; other [End Page 401] categories (sets on alternating themes) seem more traditional.

Intermingling works from a broad spectrum, both chapters move horizontally through the main categories. For instance, the section on chorale variations in-cludes the form-defining works of Buxtehude and Bach, but also discusses Mendelssohn's Organ Sonatas, op. 65, Brahms's Schumann Variations, op. 9, Liszt's Miserere, d'apres Palestrina, Reger's opus 40 no. 2 and Berg's Violin Concerto (this focusing on the variation treatment of the chorale Es ist genug). Throughout, the author argues that "successful variations are predicated on the variations' acknowledgement of their theme's lineage" (p. 70). Brahms's variations linger in the background as the typology, and the mix of works serve to clarify Brahms's own compositional practice.

Divided into five chapters, part 2 surveys the corpus of Brahms's variation sets. As befits the enormous variety of works, the readings here vary in scope, depth, and analytical treatment. The focus on "context" necessitates frequent digression; the technical analyses range from voice-leading considerations to motivic details and issues of instrumentation.

Although these chapters can be read individually, together they gradually build the case for the relevance of thematic lineage and for programmatic and narrative aspects in the later, purely instrumental variation movements. Following consideration of "the implications of Brahms's thematic choices" (p. 75) in the variations on chosen themes, subsequent chapters explore how implied narratives in the song-based "Andante" variations from the early piano sonatas (these first traced by George Bozarth), and modal shifts in Brahms's Lieder inform the variation movements from the op. 18 and op. 36 String Sextets. Part 2 concludes by considering Brahms's variation finales, including short segments on the Fourth Symphony and Clarinet Quintet (this, however, greatly oversimplifying the tonal structure of the coda). A complete reading of the Haydnesque finale from the op. 67 string quartet combines technical analysis and a narrative program borrowed from the dramaturgy of opera buffa to reveal a close relationship between the theme's stylistic shifts and the sequence of variations.

As a summation, part 3 offers an extended and thorough analysis of Brahms's Schumann Variations, op. 9. Composed after Schumann's suicide attempt and in response to Clara Schumann's own variations on the same theme, this set is Brahms's most personal and programmatic essay in variation form, as well as one that mixes an array of constructive techniques including constant melody and bass variations, and a range of canons. As with the opus 67 analysis, the discussion draws together many of the earlier strands...


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