Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a
Related Artists/CompaniesJohannes Brahms
National Symphony Orchestra: James Conlon, conductor / Gil Shaham, violin, plays Korngold - Apr. 10 - 12, 2014
A "brilliant violinist [with] flawless precision and gleeful command" (The New York Times), Gil Shaham plays Korngold's Violin Concerto on a program led by renowned conductor James Conlon that also includes masterpieces by Brahms and Zemlinsky.
About the Work
For his conducting positions with various choral societies during the 1860s, Brahms produced a large number of vocal works, and some of the most important (German Requiem, Alto Rhapsody, Schicksalslied) were fitted with orchestral accompaniments that show Brahms' growing ability to handle large instrumental forces. They bolstered his confidence as an orchestrator, but he was still reluctant to bring the First Symphony to conclusion. Another work, a smaller piece, was needed as a final confirmation that he was ready to stand on Beethoven's plateau as a symphonist. He wrote that work — the Variations on a Theme of Haydn — and it turned out to be one of the greatest independent orchestral compositions of the 19th century.
The seed for the Haydn Variations was sown in November 1870 when Karl Ferdinand Pohl, librarian for Vienna's Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, ran across some unpublished manuscripts in his research for a biography of Haydn. Pohl assumed that these works, a set of six Feldpartiten (open-air suites for wind instruments), were by Haydn, and, knowing of Brahms' interest in old music, he invited the composer to have a look at the scores. Brahms was especially interested in a movement of the Partita in B-flat that took as its theme a melody labeled "Choral St. Antoni." The idea for a set of variations based on this sturdy tune apparently sprang to his mind immediately, and he copied the theme into his notes before he left Pohl's study. He did not begin actual composition of the work until more than two years later, however, but when he did, he produced it in two separate versions — the present one for orchestra and another, identical musically, for two pianos. The two were apparently written simultaneously, and he pointed out that one was not a transcription of the other, but that they were to be thought of as two independent works. The piano version was finished by August 1873, when he played it with Clara Schumann, and published in November. The premiere of the orchestral incarnation in November received enthusiastic acclaim from critics and audiences alike, and it marked the beginning of Brahms' international reputation as an orchestral composer. During the next fifteen years, he produced all the symphonic works that continue to assure his name among the musical giants.
Though Brahms did not know it, the theme he copied out of Pohl's manuscript was probably not by Haydn at all. Considerable musicological spelunking has been done to unearth the true source of the tune, but there is still no definitive explanation of its origin. H.C. Robbins Landon, who has literally spent a lifetime in Haydn research, wrote that the whole series of works in the Partita manuscript "is spurious and ... not one note was by Haydn. One of his students, perhaps Pleyel, was probably the real author." It has been suggested that the melody was an old Austrian pilgrims' song, though conclusive evidence has never been brought forth to support this theory. We may never know for sure.
The Haydn Variations consists of a theme followed by eight variations and a finale. The scoring of the theme for wind choir preserves the reedy timbre of the original Partita, which called for two oboes, three bassoons, two horns and serpent. (This last is an obsolete bass wind instrument so called because of its S-curve shape. A marvelous example exists in the collections of Yale University that has an elaborately painted snake's head complete with a red, flapping, forked metal tongue that wags as the instrument is played. The hollow, breathy sound of this specimen makes it abundantly clear why the serpent fell into disuse.) To best appreciate the Haydn Variations, it is important to recognize the structure of its opening theme, with its irregular five-measure phrases and repeated sections. The eminent British musicologist Sir Donald Tovey made this point incisively: "In music, as in all art that moves in time, the listener should fix his attention on some element that pervades the whole, not upon some guess as to the course of events. In a set of classical variations the all-pervading element is the shape of the whole theme." The eight variations that follow preserve the theme's structure, though they vary greatly in mood: thoughtful, gentle, martial, even frankly sensual, this last being Brahms' rarest musical emotion.
The finale is constructed as a passacaglia on a recurring five-measure ostinato derived from the bass supporting the theme. This fragment, repeated many times in the low strings before it migrates into the higher instruments, generates both an irresistible rhythmic motion and a spacious solidity as the finale progresses. It leads inexorably to the spine-tingling moment when (after a minor-mode episode) the original theme bursts forth triumphantly in the strings as the woodwinds strew it with ribbons of scales.
In writing of this magnificent score in his survey of Brahms' orchestral music, John Horton paid its composer a compliment in which he would have taken the greatest pride: "The variations and finale incorporate almost every conceivable device of contrapuntal ingenuity, together with rhythms recalling the 'proportions' of 16th-century keyboard composers. Yet no work of its kind has ever sounded less pedantic, and one can only marvel how Brahms emulates and even surpasses Bach."