Brahms’ Haydn Variations

As a child, you may have been told that (through fairy tale magic) Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold. A neat parlor trick, perhaps, but how does it stack up against a Red Hedgehog spinning a mystery into eight pastoral vistas? Johannes Brahms was given the moniker “Red Hedgehog” after the Vienna coffeehouse of the same name. The famed Romantic composer was so fond of the place that he stubbornly refused to eat or drink anywhere else for most of his adult life. Brahms himself was not unlike a hedgehog anthropomorphized: whiskered and portly, described as having a “…notoriously curmudgeonly [exterior], but [one that] hid a profoundly sensitive and noble nature for which he found fullest expression in his music.” Nowhere is this nobility of musical spirit more evident than in his “Variations on a Theme by Haydn”.

A clear testament to the musical genius of its composer, the “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” was composed by Johannes Brahms in the summer of 1873. Penned during his stay at the gorgeous town of Tutzing in Bavaria, Brahms originally set the piece for two pianos. Soon after, he made the decision to adapt his variations for orchestra, and it is this version which enjoys a more enduring popularity today. But how did the Red Hedgehog stumble across this theme by Haydn? And what was it about this theme that moved Brahms to compose eight unique variations? 

Three years before he would compose the Variations, Brahms met with his friend Carl Ferdinand Pohl for coffee. At that time, Pohl was a musicologist and biographer of Haydn, serving as the librarian of the Vienna Philharmonic Society. He had called Brahms over to share with the composer what he believed to be an important discovery: a work that bore the name of the great eighteenth century composer Joseph Haydn that was utterly unknown to him. 

Pohl had made a transcription of the original piece (titled Divertimento No. 1) for Brahms to examine, who was particularly drawn to the second movement. This section bore the heading “St. Anthony Chorale” and immediately caught Brahms’ eye because of its odd melody (which began with two irregular, five-bar phrases). Brahms furiously scribbled down the melody of the “St. Anthony Chorale”, thanked Pohl profusely, and bustled out into the busy Vienna streets. Unlike most people, who needed a walk to clear their heads, Brahms required long sojourns in the countryside to access the most passionate (and personal) fragments of music that swirled within his mind. 

But Pohl had unintentionally slipped The Red Hedgehog a red herring, as Divertimento No. 1 was not actually composed by Haydn at all. Subsequent research has concluded that Divertimento No. 1 could not have been composed by the Father of the String Quartet, because it does not utilize the most oft-encountered hallmarks of Haydn’s musical style. Some academic sources posit that the Divertimento was written by Ignaz Pleyel, a student of Haydn’s, but this has not been definitively established. In the early nineteenth century, it was quite common for music publishers to attribute certain works by lesser or flat-out unknown composers to famous ones to increase the likelihood of a sale. This might explain why the Divertimento No. 1 was labeled “Haydn” in the first place

But this musical “whodunnit” grows even more perplexing when one considers the second movement of Divertimento No. 1. The mysterious composer of this work could have created the “St. Anthony Chorale” themselves, but it is more plausible that they created the melody by embellishing a pre-existing chorale. Unfortunately, it is here that the trail grows cold…as no record of a “St. Anthony Chorale” (or its unique melody) predating Divertimento No.1 has ever been found. 

In more recent years, musical scholars have attempted to rename the variations Brahms created around the theme of Divertimento No. 1’s second movement. Many musicologists now agree that “The St. Anthony Variations” is a more appropriate title for Brahms’ masterwork. After all, it is this theme which, in its entirety, forms the melodic backbone for the eight variations that follow. And, as the name implies, each of Brahms’ thematic recreations vary in small but significant ways from their prototype, most notably in their coloration, tempos, and overall character. Several of the variations recollect the technical forms of earlier musical eras, and many of these specific variations showcase Brahms as a master of counterpoint: one whose innate gifts with creating musical textures set him apart from later composers of the Romantic period.

To begin the piece, the main theme of Brahms’ St. Anthony Chorale rings out (retaining its original key of B major and appearing very much the same as it did in Divertimento No. 1). Structurally, this introduction is divided into two segments: the first explores a musical idea before repeating itself; the second section develops contrast before returning to the idea of the first segment. A coda and a repetition of the second half of the main theme ingrain its melody deep into the mind of the listener before Brahms’ magical variations begin.

Variation I arrives in a sweeping gust of colored leaves. Featuring a favorite musical texture of Brahms (triplets against duplets), the interplay of cellos and violins recall the majesty of Autumn. While the celli carry the triplets in the first half of this variation, the second half sees them trade these triplets for the duplets played by the violins in the first half. Variation II delights in explosive contrasting dynamics, a Romanian-inspired caravan dance in the parallel minor. The feeling of content meandering the orchestration produces in the listener calls to mind the rolling hills and valleys that Brahms no doubt explored while he dreamt up this masterpiece of music.

Variation III is a longer reimagining of the main theme, one which emphasizes the clarity of the oboes and bassoons to full effect. Brahms is constantly shifting around musically in this variation, re-orchestrating the repeats of each half of the main melody. We see the sky, feel the clouds, and hear the birds take flight in Springtime. As Variation IV returns to the parallel minor, a reflective oboe slows our pace through the virtual countryside down to that of a pleasant stroll. When Variation V arrives, we see something darting out onto the country path. A rabbit? A fox? It matters not, some sort of hunt is at hand! This scherzando variation bubbles with all the joyful youth that comes with the chase.

Variation VI confirms that a stately ride through the verdant forest is just what our hearts desire. The most dramatic of the variations by far, its soft beginning places the brass section firmly in charge (as well they should be during a hunt!). The quarry is chased round and round, up and down, as the second half charges the orchestra into a full fortissimo. We are before the Boar, about to snag the Stag, and then… Variation VII gracefully lulls us into a dreamlike fantasy. The tenderness of the interplay between instruments high and low seems to exemplify the balance between humankind and the natural world around us. Variation VIII descends in a mantle of mist-filled magic. Another scherzando variation, this time in the minor, it invites the translucent faeries and other winged creatures of fantasy that inhabit the forests to partake in a celebration. 

The finale emerges in the form of a chaconne, an older form of variation in which a short bass line repeats again and again. The upper parts of Brahms’ orchestration are quite varied here, and each instrument is encouraged to insert improvisatory musical remarks over the consistency of the bass line. This riff is a distilled version of the main theme, and above it Brahms strings musical lights through the trees of the celebrating forest by establishing a heartwarming array of choral textures in the upper strata of the orchestration. And so we are taken on a short but exhilarating flight out of the forest canopy and left to float delicately among the clouds as the colors of sunset fall gently around us. A brief return of the parallel minor signals that our feet have touched down on solid ground once more, and that there is traveling yet to do. There are hints of Variation II’s Romani music that feature as the finale builds to welcome a grand return of the main theme. 

And just when the listener thinks Brahms is fresh out of genius moves, the composer plants a delightful musical easter egg in the coda of the Finale to tie the entire piece together. He unwittingly renders all the mystery surrounding the original composer of St. Anthony’s Chorale utterly moot…by quoting a musical passage that really is by Haydn. In measures 463–464, the violas and celli echo the cello line from measure 148 of the second movement of Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony. The love of the outside world is wrapped around the listener in a powerful but gentle embrace, and the victorious final chords hurtle across the night sky like shooting stars. 

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn were first performed in their orchestral rendition on the 2nd of November, 1873, by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Their maestro that evening was the Red Hedgehog himself, the rough-and-tumble pianist whose tribute to a musical giant took classical music to even greater heights. No doubt on that fateful night, somewhere far above the rapturous applause, Papa Haydn smiled on Brahms’ efforts with fond appreciation. The SSO is honored to bring this masterwork to life at our Visit to Vienna concert!  

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