Theme and variations

TO create variations is as much a part of musicmaking as it is a part of living itself. When one great composer takes over a theme or motive of another, the result is a new and creative event. In this way comes about, through the constellation of Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms, one of the most beautiful and intimate testimonies to love and friendship in music literature.

When the 11-year-old Clara Wieck wrote her ''Romance'' with its seven charming variations, the young Robert Schumann, whom she would marry nine years later, had just come to Leipzig to study piano with her father, Friedrich Wieck. Clara, who was already a celebrated virtuoso pianist, dedicated her ''Romance Variee,'' Op. 3, to her adored friend ''Herr Schumann.'' He responded with his Impromptus, Op. 5, twelve variations full of fantasy on the theme of her ''Romance.'' In a letter to the poet Rellstab he writes: ''About the Impromptus I have to add that the melody is Clara Wieck's, the bass my own personal property.'' Probably inspired by Beethoven's Eroica Variations, he begins with the bass line alone, varying it in Nos. 2, 3, and 5 and, after the variations on the ''Romance,'' making it a capricious fugato in the 12th. After the composer reclaims his ''personal property'' with the bass line in octaves, the piece softly extinguishes itself with fragments of Clara's little ''Romance.''

Schumann's five Albumblatter, dating from 1836 to 1841, are exactly what their title suggests: small leaves from an album, like notes from a diary - precious little gems.

In 1853, after 13 years of marriage (and seven births), Clara surprises her husband for his birthday with a ''compositional re-attempt,'' as she calls it: seven variations on Robert's Albumblatt No. 1. These are highly romantic, pianistically colorful pieces. In the last variation she quotes her early ''Romance,'' Op. 3, which Robert loved so much.

About a year later, Johannes Brahms has Clara's work published together with his own set of 16 variations on the same Albumblatt by Robert. In this work by the 21-year-old Johannes, counterpoint studies and masterly canons (a kind of dialogue with Bach and Schumann) are combined in a unique way with grief over his friend Robert's fatal disease, and with his love for this friend's wife, the great artist Clara - all this aglow with tenderness. In the ninth variation he uses Robert's second Albumblatt literally; in the 10th he too quotes Clara's ''Romance,'' Op. 3; and in the last variation the theme fades away over the bass line like an hommage to Robert's Impromptus, Op. 5.

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