Dissertation Index

Author: Pacun, David E.

Title: Large-scale Form in Selected Variation Sets of Johannes Brahms

Institution: University of Chicago

Completed: December 1998


This dissertation presents a study of large-scale form in selected variation sets of Johannes Brahms. Large-scale variation form is defined here as the relationships between variations (the theme included) and how these relationships may be united or reduced into an extensive plan covering the entire set--that is, one over and above the mere series of independent pieces that are expected in variation sets.

Chapter I examines past readings of Brahms's variations and specifically argues for a network-based approach to the analysis of large scale form in variation sets. The purpose here is not so much to engender flexibility as to allow the exploration of large-scale unity, as it might otherwise be conceived, a broad, multi-leveled framework rather than a fixed hierarchical edifice.

Chapters II-VII then offer detailed analyses of a selection of Brahms's variation sets and variation movements. Chapter II, on the Handel Variations, opus 24, demonstrates how the variations divide into three segments of roughly equal length, with parallel developments suggesting a cyclic progression from one segment to the next. This quality is then mirrored in the culminating fugue, which has cyclic properties over and above those normally affiliated with fugal writing.

Chapter III, on the Haydn Variations, opus 56b, argues that the arrangement of variations--here a loose arch--can be explained in part by the deployment of two unordered diatonic pitch-class cells derived from the theme. The passacaglia that concludes the work exhibits a similar progression between the same two diatonic cells and at one point reiterates a common pitch configuration. Textural differences surrounding this configuration suggest that this moment in the passacaglia serves to normalize tensions within the variation's arch design, and thereby allows the work to forge ahead to its concluding thematic apotheosis.

Chapter IV, on the Schumann Variations, opus 9, attempts to modify the current view of the work's large-scale form as guided by Brahms's ascription of the individual variations as "Kreisler" or "Brahms." Here a variety of developments, including hints of a broader cyclic return, cut across the boundaries suggested by the "Brahms"/"Kreisler" ascriptions. Unlike chapters II and III, which assert an order that had not been previously recognized by scholars, the concern here is to problematize the overly tidy orderings suggested by other scholars and to assert a complexity where none has been acknowledged.

Variation sets in Brahms's multi-movement instrumental compositions prove analytically less complex. Chapter V first explores how variation sets occupying interior movement positions often fail to achieve complete closure. In the variation finales to the String Quartet in B -Major, opus 67, and the Clarinet Quintet in B-Minor, opus 115, however, closure is projected in a variety of ways through the recapitulation of first movement material.

Chapters VI and VII treat in greater detail the variation movements from the Piano Trio in C-Minor, opus 87, and the Sextet in G-Major, opus 36. Modifying past analyses which treat the opus 87 movement as rondo-like, chapter VI explores how subtle motives patterns establish a large-scale reversal between the first and last variations. This reversal not only more accurately reflects the large-scale form of the set, but ultimately helps to situate the movement and the movement's form within the context of the work as a whole.

Finally, since large-scale issues in the opus 36 variation movement have already been dealt with in a convincing manner by Elaine Sisman, the body of chapter VII utilizes transpositional combination to show how certain complex thematic relationships within the variation theme and the movement effect a critical shift in the treatment of thematic material on the level of the work as a whole.

     Return to dissertations