About Johannes Brahms's Variations
Like Beethoven, Brahms developed a particular interest in variation form. In his early variation sets the melody is of primary importance, while in later works the composer adheres more to the theme´s basic phrase structure and harmonic pattern.
He wrote to Joseph Joachim in 1856:
“I sometimes ponder on variation form, and it seems to me it ought to be more restrained, purer. Composers in the old days used to keep strictly to the base of the theme as their real subject. Beethoven varies the melody, harmony and rhythms so beautifully. But it seems to me that a great many moderns [...] cling nervously to the melody, but […] we don´t really make anything new out of it, we merely overload it."
Five years later, he wrote the Handel Variations Op. 24, a large-scale masterpiece in the same vein as the Goldberg or Diabelli Variations; and then the Paganini Variations, a virtuoso set of studies that could also be regarded a political statement, with which Brahms set himself up as opposed to the school represented by Liszt.