The Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 21 No.1, was written in 1857 and published eleven years later. The characteristic theme, of expressive beauty, is followed by a series of eleven variations. The first four of these gently explore the possibilities inherent in the theme, followed by a fifth that makes imaginative use of a canon in contrary motion, as the left hand imitates the right. A more elaborate sixth treatment of the theme is followed by the Andante dialogue of the seventh and a more forceful D minor Allegro. The ninth variation, still in D minor, provides a dramatic climax, capped by the agitation of the tenth. The last variation, longer than those that precede it, opens over a sustained trill on the note D, moving to an extended coda.
Brahms wrote his first set of Variations in 1853, the year of his meeting with Joachim and with the Schumanns. The Variations on a Hungarian Song, Opus 21 No.2, published in 1861, use a melody borrowed from the émigré violinist Reményi, first arranged for piano by Brahms and sent as a present to Joachim. The rhythm of the theme is irregular, its asymmetry preserved through the first eight variations, the opening six in the key of D minor, returning in the seventh to the original key of D major. The set ends with an extended version of the theme, moving to an energetic Allegro, a shift of key to B flat major and B flat minor and an emphatic conclusion.
The five Studies open with an elaborated version of Chopin’s Study Opus 25 No.2 in F minor, now in rapid right-hand thirds and sixths. The second provides a busy left-hand accompaniment to the final Rondo from Weber’s first Piano Sonata in C major, Opus 24. The next two studies suggest different possibilities for the Presto from the G minor Sonata for unaccompanied violin, BWV 1001, the first with the original melody at first in the right hand, the second placing the opening section melody in the left, the process in each case being reversed in the second section of the movement. The studies end with a version of the famous D minor Chaconne from the Partita for unaccompanied violin arranged for the left hand only. The first two studies, representing earlier work, were published in 1869 and those based on Bach ten years later.