In 1870, Brahms’ friend the musicologist Carl Ferdinand Pohl shared one of his discoveries with the composer: a piece for woodwind octet that he believed to be an unknown work by the great eighteenth century composer Joseph Haydn. Intrigued, Brahms copied down the second movement, which was labelled “Chorale St. Anthoni” and consisted of a genial but somewhat odd melody that began with two irregular, five-bar phrases.
While staying in the picturesque Bavarian town of Tutzing during the summer of 1873, he would compose a set of variations on the theme for two pianos. He orchestrated it immediately afterward, giving the orchestral repertoire one of its most popular pieces.
A Case of Mistaken Identity
As it turns out, later music scholars have since demonstrated that the melody Brahms used as the basis of the piece was not by Haydn. Some have suggested Haydn’s pupil Ignaz Pleyel as an alternative author, although the question of attribution has never been conclusively settled. The label “Chorale St. Anthoni” would also seem to imply that the melody was taken from some preexisting chorale, although it, too, has never been discovered.
The precise origin of the theme is of little importance, however, as the point of a theme and variations piece is to take a theme and transform it. Though the theme and variations is one of the simplest musical forms, it also provides the ultimate test of a composer’s imagination: how much can one change a theme and still have it remain on some level, fundamentally the same? In the hands of a master, variations can create the impression of discovering hidden aspects of something that at first seemed simple.
Brahms was one of the great masters of this form, and created eight variations and a finale based on the chorale theme:
The theme itself is much the same as it appeared in the original woodwind octet, with a few alterations to the orchestration, including pizzicato cellos and basses. Structurally, it is divided into two parts: the first half introduces the main idea and is then repeated; the second half begins with a contrasting phrase before returning to the main idea and ending with a coda. The second half of the theme is then also repeated.
The theme, which was labeled a chorale (a Lutheran hymn tune), has a pastoral character thanks to its woodwind scoring; indeed, the original woodwind octet Brahms borrowed it from was likely intended to be performed outdoors. This bucolic atmosphere pervades the entire piece. Brahms was fond of taking extended walking tours through the countryside, and he undoubtedly indulged this pastime during his summer in Tutzing. Though the variations have no extra-musical program, it is easy to imagine each one as evoking a different scene along such a journey.
Variation I features one of Brahms’ favorite textures: triplets against duplets (3 against 2). In the first phrase, the triplets appear in the cellos while the duplets are in the violins. In the next phrase, they switch.
- Variation II is in the parallel minor and has something of the character of Romani (gypsy) music with its explosive contrasts of soft and loud. Brahms loved Romani music and often included this style of music in his compositions (most famously the finale of his G minor Piano Quartet and his “Hungarian” Dances).
- Variation III features oboes and bassoons in a slightly embellished version of the original melody. For this variation, Brahms writes out and re-orchestrates the repeats of each half of the melody.
- Variation IV returns to the parallel minor for a plaintive oboe solo in a slower triple meter. Like the preceding variation, it also has written out and re-orchestrated repeats.
- Variation V is a fast, scherzando variation filled with bright woodwinds and unexpected accents.
- Variation VI is the most dramatic. The first half begins softly with horns, perhaps evoking the instrument’s age-old associations with hunting. The second half features daring harmonies and a full orchestra fortissimo; perhaps the quarry has been spotted?
- Variation VII, marked grazioso (graceful), is one of the most beautiful and gentle. It features a tender duet between the high and low instruments.
- Variation VIII is another scherzando variation, but this time in minor. It evokes will-o’-the-wisps and other mischievous inhabitants of dark forests, echoing the style of music developed by composers like Berlioz and Mendelssohn to depict the supernatural.
- The finale is in fact based on a different, older form of variation: the chaconne. In a chaconne, a (usually fairly short) bass line is repeated over and over while the upper parts are freely varied. Though many written out chaconnes have survived from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Pachelbel’s Canon in D major would be one example), the form also lends itself well to improvisation, as the repeated bass line creates a predictable harmonic pattern that musicians can riff on. Indeed, the twelve-bar blues works in a similar way, and many twentieth and twenty-first century rock and pop songs also make use of fairly short, repeated chord progressions. Brahms creates a bass line based on a simplified version of the beginning of the opening melody. Above it, choral, hymn-like textures thicken and grow increasingly expressive. The music takes off, quickly passing through an ever-shifting array of moods, colors and textures. After an episode in the parallel minor, the original theme makes a grand return in the full orchestra. The music then fades away, leading to the powerful final chords.
Because the piece was initially conceived for two pianos, it provides special challenges and opportunities for orchestral players. In this piece, the melody is constantly shifting from one instrument to another, and the often contrapuntal nature of Brahms’ writing means that the question of which instruments have the melody can be open to interpretation. On two pianos, which produce a mostly uniform timbre, it is comparatively easy for two musicians to hear each part clearly and to balance and shift between melody and accompaniment. In an orchestra, in which each instrument has a distinct timbre with its own strengths, dozens of musicians must constantly listen to each other and know when to come forward and when to hold back, often changing roles from beat to beat. While Brahms’ Haydn Variations may not require the virtuoso technique that other orchestral works do, a great performance is nevertheless an impressive feat. —Calvin Dotsey
Don’t miss Brahms’ Haydn Variations on May 10, 11 & 13! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.