Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn

performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Claudio Abbado

(original two-piano version here)

… except not, because it isn’t. The “Chorale St Antoni” was supposed or assumed at the time to have been composed by Haydn, but later found not to be so; as a result, the piece is sometimes referred to more accurately (although not according to the composer’s title) as the St. Anthony Variations. Brahms found the source material marked with Haydn’s name, as Wikipedia says, likely because “publishers in the early nineteenth century often attached the names of famous composers to works by unknown or lesser known composers in order to move inventory.” Oops. So Brahms plucked it off some table or shelf somewhere and wrote himself some variations on it for two pianos, later adapted into an orchestral version, which is far more popular, even getting the op. 56a designation, putting the piano version as 56b.

People also claim that Brahms’ variations are “the first independent set of variations for orchestra in the history of music,” (Wiki cites score notes or something with that statement, but also clarifies it by saying) but Antonio Salieri (the bad guy from Amadeus) wrote his own set Twenty-six Variations on ‘La folia di Spagna’ in 1815. Apparently no one knows even today who actually penned this St. Anthony Chorale, where it came from or anything else, apparently. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? The Brahms work can standalone as a real masterful piece of music.

It’s scored for a big, beefy Romantic-type orchestra, and so while it does sound stately and classical and proper and lovely, it has the satisfying heft of Brahms’ orchestral works. Stately is the word that does come to mind.

The piece takes about 18 minutes to perform, and consists of a theme with eight variations. Because I can’t say it any better or paraphrase without losing any clarity, I quote Wikipedia:

The theme begins with a repeated ten-measure passage which itself consists of two intriguing five-measure phrases, a quirk that is likely to have caught Brahms’s attention. Almost without exception, the eight variations follow the phrasal structure of the theme and, though less strictly, the harmonic structure as well. Each has a distinctive character, several calling to mind the forms and techniques of earlier eras, with some displaying a mastery of counterpoint seldom encountered in Romantic music.

I think what we hear here is Brahms’ masterful assimilation of early Classical era techniques into the Romantic tradition. I’m not going to go through the play by play of each one, because they do go quickly, but what one does notice is a pretty solid, clear adherence to the source material, as noted above, even in form/structure (although this might be more obvious only with some score-reading), but also distinctly new, refreshing, inventive and outstandingly well-executed variations on that theme. It’s a quick eighteen minutes. The layout is below:

  1. Thema. Chorale St. Antoni. Andante- The original theme has a stately polish to it, something I suppose, as quoted above, struck Brahms’ interest, but also had potential.Starts with oboes, pizzicato strings, horns feature later.
  2. Variation I. Poco più animato (Andante con moto)- my notes say only “triplets”
  3. Variation II. Più vivace (Vivace) More Brahms-y. Punch, power, and that kind of full-bodied sound, stormy, like nature.
  4. Variation III. Con moto- Something softer now, more like the original material, but not similar enough to be boring. Woodwinds feature again, with shimmery strings.
  5. Variation IV. Andante con moto (Andante)- Perhaps the most solemn of the bunch, not depressing or melancholic, but certainly at least more pensive, rich, sweeping strings.
  6. Variation V. Vivace (Poco presto)- So much fun. It’s jumpy, playful, almost humorous or mischevious, a welcome little contrast, and such a display of imagination and talent.
  7. Variation VI. Vivace- Similar-ish to V, but brassier. I get the impression this is like the final movement of a symphony reaching the really glorious climax of a triumphant work. It’s maybe the biggest, meatiest symphonic sound in this work.
  8. Variation VII. Grazioso- Waltzy, delicate, and it feels like we’re moving back round to something more resembling the original theme. The 6/8 at times feels like 3/4, and there’s a warm-blanket kind of pastoral something about it.
  9. Variation VIII. Presto non troppo (Poco presto)- There’s something stirringly energetic yet somehow (at least at first) subdued about this little section, as if things are about to explode, but they don’t and we lead right into the finale.
  10. Finale. Andante- This is the longest section. The finale is triumphant, stately, majestic, powerful, sweeping, all of those adjectives I probably overuse, but it is quaintly epic. We haven’t finished some hour-long symphony (or concerto), and so the form feels quite small, but there’s still an impression of the epic, of grandness.

(The above list comes from Wikipedia, which says “Where the tempo markings of the two versions differ, the one for Op. 56b is shown in parentheses.” Also, the links to the beginning of each specific variation were so kindly given in a YouTube comment on the featured video by Kiodorz, so thanks for those!)

It’s like the perfection and total delectableness of a teeny meal, maybe a small lunch or something, or an afternoon tea with canapés or little savories that are so good they take your breath away. You haven’t just experienced a ten-course chef’s menu or anything, and it didn’t take hours to experience and enjoy, but even in those small little bites, a chef is able to show off his expertise, skill, creativity and mastery of his craft, sometimes even with greater challenge due to the smallness of the form he’s working in.

Brahms’ variations quiets down and then blossoms out into a flourishing, breathtaking finish, and I feel the same way about the work. It has delicacy, balance, poise, punch, all packed into a very compact, straightforward package, jumping from one variation to the next while still maintaining a strong sense of unity. There’s no underlying large-scale structure to divine, no laundry list of themes or motifs to keep track of, just a presentation of an idea, and a small, quick, delicious succession of ideas based on it. It’s delicious.

I will say I have two versions of this, one from the Brahms set of Chailly and the Gewandhaus, the other from the late Harnoncourt with the Berlin Philharmonic. I’ve listened to them both on more than a few occasions, and was never really compelled either way with specific interpretations. I couldn’t identify one or the other. I know that these two Brahms symphony cycles are likely not standard choices (I also have others: Solti/Chicago, and Haitink/LSO, and more), but while looking for a YouTube video to include in the article, I found Abbado and Berlin, and that’s a pairing that you really can’t go wrong with. That’s all for today, but stay tuned Thursday for more Brahms!


One thought on “Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn

  1. I read somewhere, unfortunately can’t remember where, that Brahms owned an original manuscript of the ‘Haydn’ work. Of course, it would have most likely been a copyist’s ‘fair copy’, not in Haydn’s handwriting anyway, so he can’t be blamed for his errant belief. It is a very nice work anyway, no matter who wrote the theme! There is an excellent rendition of the alleged ‘Haydn’ version by Haydn Sinfonietta Wien / Manfred Huss. Almost had ME thinking it was Haydn! 😉


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