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Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a

About the Work

Johannes Brahms
Quick Look Composer: Johannes Brahms
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: James Conlon, conductor / Gil Shaham, violin, plays Korngold Apr. 10 - 12, 2014
© Peter Laki

Johannes Brahms was born in Hamburg on May 7, 1833, and died in Vienna on April 3, 1897.  He wrote his Haydn Variations in two versions:  one for orchestra (Op. 56A) and one for two pianos (Op. 56B), both in 1873.  The first performance was given by the Vienna Philharmonic under Brahms's direction on November 2, 1873.  The United States premiere took place five months later, on April 11, 1874, with Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic.

This work runs about 18 minutes in performance.  Brahms scored the orchestral version for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, and strings.

It may come as a disappointment to some of us to learn that the theme of Brahms's Variations on a theme by Haydn is not by Haydn at all.  But misattributions were a common occurrence in music up to the 19th century, as copyright laws were non-existent and music circulated freely in manuscript form.  For commercial reasons, publishers sometimes passed off works by lesser composers as if they had been written by the great masters; also, they often made unwitting errors as information about authorship was difficult or impossible to verify.  Modern musicology resorts to a variety of techniques, including meticulous examinations of the handwriting on the manuscript, the watermarks on the paper, and other details, in order to find out more about the provenance of a specific manuscript and the music it contains.

Using such methods, Haydn specialist H. C. Robbins Landon showed that the Feldparthie* in B-flat major, containing the famous theme under the heading "Chorale St. Antoni," is almost certainly not by Haydn.  A more likely composer is Ignaz Joseph Pleyel (1757-1831), a pupil of Haydn's who is perhaps best known to young piano players as the author of some charming and easy sonatinas; he was also one of the leading piano manufacturers of his time.  From 1795 to his death, he made his home in Paris; one of the most magnificent concert halls in that city is named after him.

In any case, the melody of the "Chorale St. Antoni" is really neither by Haydn nor by Pleyel.  Whoever wrote the Feldparthie used what was probably a popular religious melody, used in village processions on the feast of St. Anthony of Padua.

The most remarkable feature of the "St. Antoni" theme is that it consists of two phrases of five measures each, not four as usual in Classical music.  This peculiarity is carefully maintained throughout the eight variations, which otherwise explore a wide gamut of tempos, characters, orchestral colors, and compositional techniques. 

When stating the theme, Brahms stayed close to the original wind scoring of the Feldparthie.  The theme has a definite archaic flavor to it, but as soon as the first variation starts, we are transported into unmistakably Brahmsian realms.  The most striking traits of the composer's style include his fondness for using duple and triple divisions of the beat either simultaneously or in close succession, and his predilection for building melodies out of successive intervals of thirds.  We find both of these fingerprints already in the first variation, where the eighth-notes of the violin melody are rising in thirds, while the descending triplets of the violas and cellos outline the same intervals.  The parts are later reversed, but the construction in thirds and the duple-triple contrast dominate the entire variation.

The first variation was in a tempo faster than the theme.  The second variation is even faster; it is also the first one to turn from the major to the minor mode.  The two "fingerprints" observed in the first variation continue to be present, but in addition, there is now a dynamic contrast between forte passages played by the whole orchestra and piano ones given to the strings and selected woodwinds.

The third variation is really two variations, for instead of repeating each half of the theme in the same way as has been done before, Brahms now changes the orchestration for the repeat.  The two variations alternate:  first we hear the first half of the first, followed by the first half of the second, the second half of the first, and the second half of the second.  The main difference between the two "sub-variations" is that the second one includes delicate ornamental passages played by the flutes and bassoons.

The fourth variation-again in the minor mode, and in a slower tempo-is a masterpiece of counterpoint, in which Brahms shows his prodigious knowledge of Baroque musical techniques.  The form of polyphonic treatment we find here is known as "inverted counterpoint at the twelfth."  Counterpoint means that there are two completely independent melodies played simultaneously.  "Inverted" means that the first of these melodies can be played either above or below the other.  And "at the twelfth" means that when the counterpoint is actually inverted, one of the two lines is also transposed by a twelfth, that is, an octave and a fifth.  The difficulty is that the counterpoint has to yield acceptable harmonies both in its inverted and non-inverted form.  The melodies have to be in a special way to make this possible.  The beauty of it all is that the learned effort never shows:  one hears a simple, haunting melody on the winds accompanied by a faster-moving figure in the strings, before the roles are reversed.  Yet the variation wouldn't have the special atmosphere it possesses if its dream-like lyricism were not supported by a rigorous underlying structure.

The fifth variation is the "Scherzo" of the set.  Quick staccato (short and separated) notes in both winds and strings, mostly pianissimo with occasional off-beat accents, give this section a light, fleeting character, in sharp contrast both with what precedes and what follows.

The first five variations actually retained little from the original theme except its five-bar phrases and, more or less, its bass line.  This is why it comes as something of a surprise when, in Variation 6, the St. Antoni melody returns in the horns in almost its original form, though in a faster tempo.  It is interesting to note that this time it is the bass line, and with it the harmonies, that are modified.

The seventh variation is again slower ("Grazioso").  Its expressive melody is played by solo flute and violas, with violins and bassoons taking over the second time.  The other instruments add a delicate and sensitive accompaniment, with some exquisite dissonances that lend a special flavor to this quite, pastoral passage.

Variation 8, which visits the minor mode once more, is fast and mysterious, and has a special sound quality owing to the muted strings.  A contrapuntal finale immediately follows-a passacaglia over the bass line of the theme's first five measures.  What this means is that the basses keep repeating those five measures while the rest of the orchestra plays ever-changing counter-melodies to that stable "ground."  Each five-measure unit is really a separate variation on the first phrase of the theme, but what we hear is a continuous movement whose progression is unbroken and completely seamless.  Eventually, the ground is taken over by higher-pitched instruments such as the horn and the oboe, and also moves temporarily to the minor mode.  The work closes with the original form of the St. Anthony Chorale played by the entire orchestra in a triumphant fortissimo.

Brahms returned to the idea of ending an orchestral work with a passacaglia when he wrote his Fourth Symphony in 1884-85, which also ends with a set of variations on a ground bass, though on a much larger scale than the closing section of the Haydn Variations.

*  The title Feldparthie means a serenade-type work for wind instruments intended for outdoor performance.