Variations on a Theme by Haydn

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Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Opus 56a

Johannes Brahms
Born May 7, 1833 in Hamburg, Germany
Died April 3, 1897 in Vienna, Austria

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


When Brahms was forty he decided to write a set of variations (one version for orchestra and one version for two pianos), based on one of Haydn’s wind Divertimenti, called a “Feldpartitai”. The composer’s selection for the foundational subject was “Choral St. Antoni.” Some have questioned the authenticity of Haydn’s authorship of the choral work, and in 1951 the noted scholar H.C Robbins Landon proclaimed in the Saturday Review of Literature that “the Feldpartita used by Brahms is spurious…not one note was by Haydn. One of his students perhaps Pleyel, was the real author.”

Regardless of authorship, Brahms was taken by the tune and its irregular structure, built on five rather than the usual four measures in length. This became the basic theme for his eight variations with a concluding passacaglia and finale. Jonathan Kramer wrote that the orchestral version of the Variations on a Theme by Haydn is unique because it is “apparently the first set of independent (not part of a larger work) variations ever composed by anyone for orchestra.” After the success of  his Variations (for orchestra), Brahms finally felt equipped and ready to write for the orchestral medium. This confidence marked a fertile re-direction in his career.

Opus 56 is structured as follows:

Opening presentation of the main theme (in oboes and bassoons), which is divided in two parts and repeated. The orchestration echoes that of the Haydn Feldpartita.

Variation I (Poco più animato) is a fluid setting with violins weaving polyrhythmic tracery over strongly marked chords.

Variation II (Più Vivace) steps up the pace and focuses on the dotted rhythm of the foundational theme. Clarinets and bassoons in sixths high.

Variation III (con moto), a long melodic line flowing in sixteenth notes and eighth notes is featured providing a smooth version of the original tune. Oboes and bassoons converse above a passage in double octaves for lower strings.

Variation IV (Andante con moto) is cast in a poetic minor mode. The warmth of the solo French horn and oboes singing in octaves over supportive violas reflects a wistful, almost sentimental treatment.

Variation V (Vivace), the major mode returns in a scherzo-like 6/8 meter. The music dances in a light-hearted, care free mood with winds paired in thirds.

Variation VI (Vivace) is a bright march marked by hunting style fanfares.

Variation VII (Grazioso) sings in a lilting siciliano style. Flutes and violas provide a unique pairing.

Variation VIII (Presto non troppo) Piccolo, clarinet and bassoons enter delicately on top of muted strings to daintily recall the main idea. The sweetness and delicacy of this variation is a dramatic foil for the weighty, majestic finale.

Finale (Andante) — Brahms concludes the Variations with a massive passacaglia using the five measure section of the theme for its repeating feature. The foundation is repeated twelve times. (This old form was one of Brahms’ favorites, which he used also in his Fourth Symphony). The music begins with a hymn-like statement derived from the Haydn choral, which grows steadily in complexity. Contrapuntal lines swirl above the basic thought, wind into a powerful elaboration, and burst into a roaring climax with  fortissimo brass stating the theme over rushing scales in winds and strings. 

The ISO’s last performance on Variations on a Theme by Hayden was April 2008, conducted by Rossen Milanov.

 © Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016

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