With this set of pieces, Brahms placed himself squarely in the tradition of nineteenth century piano étude composition. His use of Paganini's Twenty-Fourth Caprice as inspiration is telling because both Liszt and Schumann had made arrangements of Paganini caprices for the purpose of piano studies. For Brahms, this was a political statement. First of all, the Caprice he chose to set had its own set of variations attached that Liszt had transcribed literally. But, by writing two new sets of Variations, Brahms set himself up as opposed to the virtuosic school represented by Liszt. Second, by choosing a Caprice that Schumann did not transcribe, by creating two separate books (Schumann's Paganini transcriptions were published as two separate sets), and by using the designation Studien (like Schumann) rather than Étuden (like Liszt) Brahms showed himself to be allied to both Schumann and a continuation of his aesthetic.
The inspiration for the Paganini Variations came from lengthy conversations on piano technique with the great virtuoso Carl Tausig. Brahms jokingly referred to these Studies as his "finger exercises," but in fact, he created a unique and formidably difficult style of piano playing that he never again approached in his pianistic output. From the technical standpoint, the principal problems are those of double-note technique and rhythm. Brahms seemed less interested in fluent finger work than in complex arpeggiations and difficult chord configurations. In a way, Brahms technique is more a technique of the wrist, arm, and back than of the fingers. Musically, the principal problem arises in the division into two books. Both sets begin with a statement of the theme and have full-blown Finales. Also, both sets are similar enough in organization and style to become musically (if not technically) monotonous when played back-to-back. Unfortunately the best of the Studies are strewn between the books; therefore, a performance of one or the other inevitably leaves out some of the most interesting material. There is no clear-cut solution to this dilemma, and most pianists simply play both books, eliminating the statement of the theme for Book II. These two books of variations are neither as complex nor sophisticated as the Handel or Schumann Variations, but are still magnificent creations, and create an idiomatically Brahmsian piano style that has never been surpassed in difficulty or originality.