Clara Schumann wrote her piano variations op 20 in 1853, and gave the first performance of them on May 27th 1854 to Johannes Brahms. Brahms was himself so moved by Clara’s composition and performance that he then composed his own set of variations on the same theme. The theme used by both is the 4th movement of Robert Schumann’s Bunte Blatter, op 99. Schumann’s performance marking was “Ziemlich Langsam” (rather slow). Clara’s variations begin with a re-stating of her husband’s brief piece in its entirety, on which she then offers 7 variations. Robert’s theme remains clear throughout these melodic variations, and so too does the subdued character. The first variation is characterized by the triplet movement in the bass with the theme clearly defined in the upper register. The second variation’s staccato semiquavers create a feeling of forward movement and the technical difficulties of this variation give an insight into the commanding technique which Clara herself possessed. The third variation sees a return to the initial theme’s character and rhythmic movement with a slow, mournful account of the theme. The fourth variation moves forward again through the triplet semiquavers in the right hand with the supporting theme clearly present in the left hand. The fifth variation is more animated with agitated left hand octaves over which there is an insistent chordal statement of the main theme. The sixth variation once again returns to the initial tempo with a beautiful canon; Clara’s unique sense of harmony is explored here also. The seventh variation uses spread chords and arpeggios to express the theme in a delicate fashion, whilst the final coda drifts off into silence through soft arpeggios. This work was to be one of Clara’s last compositions. With the increased responsibility of her children and Robert’s declining health she came to focus on her performing career and teaching.
Clara presented her husband Robert with the variations on his birthday with the dedication “To my beloved husband on the 8th of June 1853 this humble, renewed essay by his old Clara”.