Brahms – Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, “St. Anthony’s Variations,” Op. 56a

by Max Derrickson

Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, “St. Anthony Variations” Op. 56a
Theme – Chorale “St. Anthony” – Andante
Variation 1 – Poco più animato (Andante con moto)
Variation 2 – Più vivace (Vivace)
Variation 3 – Con moto
Variation 4 – Andante con moto (Andante)
Variation 5 – Vivace (Poco presto)
Variation 6 – Vivace
Variation 7 – Grazioso
Variation 8 – Presto non troppo (Poco presto)
Finale – Andante

Johannes Brahms
(Born in Hamburg, 1833; died in Vienna, 1897)
Before Brahms felt ready to tackle his first symphony, which would take him roughly 22 years to accomplish from its first notion in 1853, he tutored himself and tried out his compositional craft in various ways: solo piano works, choral pieces, works for chamber ensemble, lieder, and his magnificent German Requiem, op. 45 for Chorus and Orchestra.   In this vein of self-tutelage he also had begun studying older music (such as Baroque and earlier) as well as collecting original manuscripts – as one of the early music historians.  This led, [. . .] research found that the work was almost certainly not that by Haydn, but instead bore his name for any one of several common practices of the day – thus, [. . .].  Nonetheless, its beautiful tune was enough to really capture Brahms’s imagination and inspire him to try something bold – a first foray at a full orchestral work – a kind of practice run at a symphony – and things much more clever.  But first he wrote them for two pianos which was eventually published under the same title but numbered as Op. 56b.

One of the most clever aspects to this work is Brahms’s choice to make it a set of variations for an orchestra – historically this happened with piano alone or small ensemble pieces.  These are considered, in fact, virtually the first Orchestral variations written, although Mozart’s contemporary, Salieri, [. . .]   which Brahms will use as a reason to create many odd-phrased passages throughout the work.

The variational play throughout the 8 variations and finale are filled with originality.  Examples come soon enough – after a tidy bit of gentle wandering of the strings in Variation One, the Second Variation [. . .] Variation Three allows the winds [. . .]   Brahms’s favorite hemiolas (two beats juxtaposed over three beats) aplenty, and odd-lengthed phrasing that would have made the “Experimenter” Haydn proud (had he actually written the theme).  The theme is brought back in recognizable form in Variation [. . .].  The Finale then conjures up something so old it would in Brahms’s day have sounded quite innovative, [. . .]  In essence, the Finale is a set of variations in a set of variations.  It also leads us into what seems will be a fugue, before it [. . .], with robust good cheer.