Recording: Martin Jones, pianist [NI 1788]

Published 1861.

This work is almost certainly earlier than the “Variations on an Original Theme,” and was possibly composed as early as 1853, thus predating the “Schumann” set (Op. 9).  The “Hungarian Song” was given to Brahms by his violinist collaborator Eduard Reményi.  As used in the variations, the “theme” is a brief, vigorous eight bars.  Its distinctive aspect is the alternation between 3/4 and 4/4 bars, a typical example of Eastern European mixed meter.  Brahms adheres to the metric alternation of the theme for the first eight variations.  From Variation 9 on, he abandons the mixed meter and switches to straight duple time. Although the theme is in major, the first six variations are all written in minor.  The “Hungarian” aspect is most pronounced in Variation 5 (one of the minor-key group), which has an unmistakable “gypsy” flavor and even an evocation of the Hungarian cimbalom.  The last few variations in major steadily increase in volume, pressing toward the finale.  This “coda” dwarfs the variations themselves.  Played at twice the speed, it uses a refrain and other episodes resembling more variations.  At the finale’s culmination, the original (and long absent) Hungarian Song theme rings out as a triumphant capstone.  These variations, though much shorter than their companion, provide an effective complement to the “Original Theme” set.  The two works were published together and are often paired in performance.

ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (First Edition [monochrome] from Russian State Library)
ONLINE SCORE FROM IMSLP (From Breitkopf & Härtel Sämtliche Werke)

NOTE: Variations 1-6 are in D MINOR and in the “Allegro” tempo.  Variations 7-13 and the finale are in D MAJOR.  Variations 7-13 use the “Poco più lento” tempo.  The Finale is again “Allegro.”  Variations 1-8 all use the 3/4--4/4 alternation.  Variation 9 is in 6/8 time.  Variations 10-13 and the Finale are in 2/4 time.
0:00 [m. 1]--THEMA.  Allegro.  D MAJOR, 3/4--4/4 time.  The theme is a square, even eight bars.  There are four two-bar phrases of similar structure.  The interest lies in the meter.  The bars alternate between 3/4 and 4/4.  The 3/4 bars begin with two shorter notes or chords, than two longer notes or chords.  The 4/4 bars are four pounding, accented, even chords, except for the last bar, which uses shorter notes on the second beat to lead to the cadence.  Bass support is solid throughout.
0:19 [m. 9]--VARIATION 1.  The first six variations are in minor.  This one places the melody of the original theme in bass octaves in the left hand, with variants at the end, including a triplet rhythm.  The right hand plays a passionate, heavy counterpoint with both triplet and straight rhythms, rich harmonies, and syncopation.  The right hand has a faster flourish at the end to match the left hand’s ascending triplet.
0:37 [m. 17]--VARIATION 2.  It is quieter than the Theme and Variation 1.  The rhythm of the theme is mostly preserved in the right hand, with some added long-short groups.  There are alterations in the contour, especially in the 4/4 bars.  The left hand only plays in the 4/4 bars, in broken octaves.
0:55 [m. 25]--VARIATION 3.  The variation is even more quiet than Variation 2, but has a buildup in the second half. The right hand plays generally descending, harmonized patterns with embellishing notes.  The first and third beats of each 4/4 bar are broken into two shorter chords.  The left hand plays faster groups, mostly a low note leaping  up or down to three higher repeated ones, but also scales and broken octaves.
1:14 [m. 33]--VARIATION 4.  This returns to the character of the original theme, made more severe and forceful by the minor mode.  The first two 3/4 bars split the chord on the third beat into two shorter ones.  The left hand plays leaping broken octaves in the 4/4 bars, the bottom ones doubled.  The left hand also plays octaves on the second and third beats of the 3/4 bars, somewhat imitating the right hand.
1:31 [m. 41]--VARIATION 5.  Again, this is somewhat more quiet, but very expressive.  The left hand’s triplet rhythms and repeated notes after arpeggios lend the variation its character.  The right hand phrases, beginning off the beat, have a “gypsy” flavor with their syncopations over bar lines and their mixture of straight and triplet rhythm.  The right hand triplets, harmonized in thirds on the third beat of each 4/4 bar, have a distinctive “skipping” quality caused by the replacement of the third note with a rest.
1:51 [m. 49]--VARIATION 6.  The right hand now plays triplet rhythms throughout, mostly repeated groups of thirds or sixths with some motion between the repetitions.  The left hand plays octave leaps in dotted (long-short) rhythm in the 3/4 bars, followed by descending scale patterns in the 4/4 bars.  After the first phrase, all of these left hand leaps and descents are harmonized.  The variation begins quietly, but has a powerful swelling in its second half.  Brahms indicates a pause after this variation in preparation for the change to a slower tempo and to the major key.
2:13 [m. 57]--VARIATION 7.  Poco più lento (essentially twice as slow).  The arrival of the major key is a relief after the building tension of the minor-key variations.  The left hand plays the original theme in single low bass notes marked quasi pizzicato, an indication that plucked strings should be imitated.  The right hand is given a very expressive, harmonized melody with an active inner voice and mild syncopation.  The last two bars include sumptuous rolled chords.  There is a slight slowing and sustaining in these last bars.
2:38 [m. 65]--VARIATION 8.  This variation is very quiet.  The left hand plays rolled octaves that then leap down to a repeated low D pedal bass note.  The downward leaps and the pedal note are abandoned in the fifth and seventh bars, and replaced with a new low note (B) in the sixth bar.  The right hand plays mostly chords off the beats (on the half-beat).  The last two 3/4 bars (the fifth and seventh bars) abandon this, instead using the rhythm of the original theme.
3:09 [m. 73]--VARIATION 9.  In another major shift, the 3/4--4/4 alternation is abandoned and does not return until the end of the finale.  This is the lone variation notated in 6/8 time (two groups of three beats).  The left hand has an undulating, trill-like middle voice under its bass notes.  The right hand plays isolated chords.  These are in short-long two-chord groupings in the first, third, fifth, and seventh (former 3/4) bars on the third and fourth beats (an upbeat and a downbeat).  They are isolated off-beat chords (on the third and sixth beats) in the even-numbered bars.  It maintains the quiet volume in force since Variation 7.
3:30 [m. 81]--VARIATION 10.  Despite a new meter marking, 2/4, the 6/8 groupings of the previous variation continue as triplet rhythms.  The right hand plays these in a single line that arches up and down in the first four bars.  This expands to two larger arches (first down, then up) in the last four bars.  The left hand plays supporting harmonies, mostly a low bass note leaping to slurred short-long groups, in straight rhythm that goes against the right hand triplets (hence the 2/4 marking).  A slight increase in tension is provided by swelling and receding on each shorter and longer arching group.
3:45 [m. 89]--VARIATION 11.  This is very similar to Variation 10.  In fact, except for a very minor alteration in the last two bars, the left hand is identical.  The important difference is that the right hand arches are sped up to groups of four notes in straight rhythm.  The 2/4 is now unambiguous in both hands.  The right hand breaks into broken octaves in the sixth and eighth bars.  The buildup of tension heard in the previous variation continues, culminating in an actual swelling crescendo in the last four bars.
3:57 [m. 97]--VARIATION 12.  This variation has reached a louder level through the previous crescendo.  The right hand breaks into very decorative, flowing triplets (with notes half as long--and faster--than the triplets in Variation 10).  These triplets leap down, then skip back up, moving in descending patterns in each two-bar phrase.  The second half moves to the melody of the original theme.  The left hand plays the original theme in broken octaves in straight rhythm.  There is an even greater swelling of volume.
4:12 [m. 105]--VARIATION 13.  This is the climax of the variations before the finale.  Both hands play forceful upward three-note arpeggios, the left hand in fast triplets, the right hand in even faster straight rhythms (double the speed of the previous variations).  In the first three bars, these right hand groups begin off the beat.  In the fourth bar, a fourth note is added, after which they begin on the beat and move in a four-against-three conflict with the left hand.  The power and volume increases even more until a sudden holding back in the eighth bar.  The variation is extended by three bars.  The first is an added set of arpeggios that essentially extends the eighth bar, avoiding a cadence.  The second is an arresting, anticipatory “dominant” chord.  The last bar is a bridge to the Finale, a sweeping upward scale following a brief break.
4:32 [m. 116]--FINALE.  It returns to the original “Allegro” tempo.  The marking “il doppio Movimento” essentially assures this.  It is entirely in 2/4.  The finale is in the style of a czárdás.  The first eight bars are essentially another variation, a fast running line in the right hand against thumping, marching octaves and broken octaves in the left.  This joyous passage returns twice more in the finale as a sort of refrain.
4:39 [m. 124]--Sudden shift of mode to D minor.  In this section resembling a variation, various elements come together.  Forceful upward figures alternate with lighter, higher passages including “snapped” short-long figures.  There is a plunging octave bass line with repeated downbeat triplets heard against the “forceful” figures.  The bass is higher and harmonized (not in octaves) against the “lighter figures.”
4:47 [m. 132]--Continuation of the previous section in D minor.  Trills break out in the right hand against the “forceful upward figures” in the left.  Then the right hand takes over the “forceful” figures while the left breaks into fast broken octaves.  Finally, scales break out in alternation between the hands, played against hammering repeated chords or octaves.  The scale passage has the function of a transition.
4:59 [m. 146]--Repetition at an even louder level of the “refrain” from 4:32 [m. 116].  There are slight differences in the first part of the octave bass line.  After its completion, the refrain emerges into octaves D’s (three octaves split between the hands) in triplet rhythm.  These are answered by bass octave triplets on B-flat, pivoting to the next section in that key.
5:11 [m. 157]--The music becomes quiet for the first time in the Finale.  This episode begins in B-flat major, a new tonality that lends an air of freshness and remoteness.  Both hands play smooth, flowing lines, twice interrupted by louder mid-range triplets.  The bass consists largely of long ascending arpeggios.  After the second triplet, Brahms moves further in key and harmony, toward D minor and E-flat major.  A third interrupting triplet is heard before a definitive arrival on E-flat is avoided and interrupted.
5:33 [m. 177]--Very abruptly, the music is diverted back to B-flat, but this time it is the minor key.  After an initial hammering set of chords in triplet rhythm leading to a longer chord, the hands begin to play clashing triplet and straight duple rhythm against each other.  The left hand plays octaves, the right hand octaves and chords.  Initially, the triplets alternate hands each bar.  Then, the triplets seem to take over (moving toward E-flat minor), but the two hands never play triplets together, instead either holding a long chord or playing a straight duple group against triplets in the other hand.  The hands finally come together on a “hammering” group in straight rhythm, culminating on a huge B-flat spread over four octaves and then leaping down.
5:48 [m. 189]--The right hand returns to its flowing harmonies from 5:11 [m. 157].  Against this, the left hand plays running scales, broken octaves, and other leaping lines in notes twice as short (so moving twice as fast).  The right hand largely adheres to its previous music except for two abbreviations.  At the end of the passage, it is altered to move back toward the home key of D major, away from the B-flat/E-flat area.  The three “interrupting” triplets from the previous passage are preserved.
6:08 [m. 207]--The preceding passage breaks into a huge transition with fast running scale passages, the right hand joining the left  after two bars.  The running passages are harmonized between the hands, mostly in sixths or tenths.  Then the left hand breaks into a descending arpeggio at half the speed under the continuing right hand figures.  As it continues after a bar, the right hand reaches down to the low bass to play a final transitional scale in fast triplets.
6:20 [m. 217]--Final statement of the “refrain” in somewhat altered, but very recognizable form, with a more powerful bass line and some alterations in the right hand.  It is expanded to twelve bars through a brief turn to minor in the second four bars, then a varied repeat in major of those four bars.
6:30 [m. 229]--Transitional passage to the emergence of the original theme.  The patterns of the refrain continue with an oscillating passage that rises, then is repeated an octave lower.  This second repetition is expanded for two bars, then breaks into jubilant chords offset slightly (through syncopation) between the hands.
6:37 [m. 237]--Tempo I più animato, 3/4--4/4.  Triumphant crowning return of the long-absent original Hungarian Song theme, complete with the 3/4--4/4 alternation.  It is largely in its original form, but more fleshed out with fuller harmonies, lower octaves, and two added triplets in the bass.  It is also expanded by a bar to stretch out the final cadence.  The last chord is an additional 4/4 bar and is sustained.
7:15--END OF VARIATIONS [245 mm.]