Although entitled no 1, these set of variations were in fact written a few years after op 21 no 2, probably in the late 1850’s. This set of variations has been nicknamed the “philosophical variations”.
The theme consists of two 9 bar phrases, the irregularity of which remains almost consistent throughout the variations that follow. The 1st variation starts with a cello-like solo in semiquavers joined by an upper voice, the 2nd variation continues the semiquaver movement slightly faster with a soaring melody reminiscent of Brahms German requiem. The 3rd variation’s quaver chordal movement slows the pace down again and is full of heart rendering suspensions. The 4th variation returns to semiquaver movement and is grouped in two. This variation concludes the first section of the piece. The 5th variation is a sublime canon. The 6th moves the music forward through the triplet semiquaver movement. The 7th variation is sparse and poignant and written in 2/4 time. The 8th, 9th and 10th variations are in D minor and indicate a sudden agitated change in mood. The 9th variation contains the dynamic climax of the section. We return to D major for the 11th and final variation, deep trills in the base provide the textural support to the upper melody. The coda is one of the most beautiful pages of Brahms, as close to heaven’s door as one can reach.