The Kennedy Center

Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b

About the Work

National Symphony Orchesra Composer Portraits - Johannes Brahms Composer: Johannes Brahms
© Peter Laki

Even though the orchestral version of Brahms's Haydn Variations tends to overshadow the earlier two-piano setting, the piano writing is so idiomatic in the latter that it is not hard at all to accept it as a genuine piano composition.

      The theme of these variations is really not by Haydn at all, although Brahms thought all his life that it was. For this reason, it seems utterly pedantic to rename the work the "Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale," as is sometimes done. It is true that the melody in question was originally an Austrian processional chorale in honor of St. Anthony of Padua, arranged in a piece for wind octet. The octet was attributed to Haydn by Brahms's friend, musicologist Carl Ferdinand Pohl, who had discovered the manuscript; but modern research has shown that it is actually by Haydn's student Ignaz Pleyel. This, however, has no bearing either on the original chorale (which in any case is neither Haydn nor Pleyel,) or on what Brahms did with the melody in his brilliant set of variations.

     Brahms was a supreme master of the variation form, which he used frequently both in movements from longer works and in self-contained compositions. The possibilities open in a Brahms variation set go well beyond ornamentation or changes in tempo, meter or key. The chorale can become a passionate song, a light-hearted game or a graceful pastorale, as the basic melody gives rise to a whole series of new melodies. These share their underlying structure with the original theme, but each new melody is an independent entity, with a soul of its own.

      Brahms ended his variations with a passacaglia-that is, a set of variations within a variation. The theme is here transformed into a bass line that is repeated numerous times without change, providing a stable "ground" against which ever-changing counter-melodies are played. These mini-variations are arranged in a continuous movement whose progression is unbroken and completely seamless. The work closes with the original form of the St. Anthony chorale returning triumphantly in a full fortissimo.