Johannes Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a

Written for the San Francisco SymphonyNot to be reprinted without permission.

With the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, we find Johannes Brahms taking his last step before finally completing his First Symphony, at age 43, after more than two decades of work and anticipation. But just before entering that historic genre, he invented a brand new one. No one before had written a standalone set of orchestral variations, and so he set the stage for later works as different as Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Ravel’s Boléro, both Schoenberg and Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, and Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini.

In the broadest sense, variation is fundamental to musical creativity of all kinds—it’s how you extend and elaborate on an idea, or turn a common theme into your own. Strict theme-and-variation pieces, however, had a bit of a bad reputation in the 19th century. “The variation form, although cultivated by the masters with special partiality, is still so badly mistreated by bunglers and hacks that, when it appears, people avoid it or encounter it with mistrust,” wrote one commentator in 1860. “Theorists and aestheticians scarcely want to grant it even a modest spot next to legitimate art forms.”

Yes, you had vapid variations that take a tune through a series of ornamentations—do it in dotted rhythm, fill it with fast arpeggios, then change major key to minor, etc. But on the other hand, you had Beethoven, who wrote variation movements in his late string quartets and piano sonatas that would slingshot a theme into parallel expressive universes. No other musical form veers so wildly between the banal and the profound.

Brahms added the heft of a full orchestra to the variation form, and then had the nerve to make that the whole piece. He was given the theme by his friend Carl Ferdinand Pohl, the librarian and archivist at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, who was writing a Haydn biography. Pohl had found some unpublished divertimentos for wind octet that were attributed to Haydn, including one with an interesting slow movement labeled “Chorale St. Antoni.” Since the 1950s, scholars have seriously questioned Haydn’s authorship—the octet may actually have been written by some other composer in roughly Haydn’s style. The origin of the chorale melody is also a mystery—it might be an echo of a forgotten medieval pilgrimage song, but is not any hymn otherwise known today.

Brahms wrote the Variations during the summer of 1873 while on a composing retreat in Tutzing, Bavaria. He began the piece as a piano duo before setting out on the orchestral version; he was adamant that the two versions were coequal (with opus numbers 56a and 56b), and neither was an arrangement or reduction of the other. The orchestral version was premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic on November 2, 1873, with the composer conducting.

Theme and Variations

Brahms begins with the full St. Antoni theme, keeping nearly the same orchestration as the original wind-band version. The chorale evokes an unsteady religious processional, with an unusually shaped 10-bar phrase to the first half, followed by a 19-bar continuation. Both sections are repeated, and Brahms maintains the same plan in every variation (sometimes varying the orchestration on the repeats). What is remarkable is how the ebb and flow of each variation changes, creating different organic shapes within a strict outline.

Variation I, Poco più animato, brings a warm glow with the upper strings, and the rhythmic churning of triplets against duples is perhaps Brahms’s favorite musical texture. Variation II, Più vivace, explodes with dynamic contrasts, while Variation III, Con moto, exults in the slight differences between pianissimo and piano. Variation IV, Andante con moto, begins with a lovely melodic transformation of theme, in B-flat minor, first doubled in the oboe and horn, then answered in the strings. Variation V, Vivace, chirps and fizzes, while Variation VI, also Vivace, is yanked back down to earth. Variation VII, Grazioso, is a spacious pastorale, while Variation VIII, Presto non troppo, is a shadowy, furtive rendition of the theme.

The Finale breaks the mold while doubling down on the variation idea, containing 16 miniature sub-variations over a repeated ground bass itself derived from the main theme. Brahms stays true to an insight he shared in an 1869 letter: 

In a theme for variations, it is almost only the bass that actually has any meaning for me. But this is sacred to me, it is the firm foundation on which I then build my stories. What I do with melody is only playing around . . . on a given bass, I discover new melodies in it, I create.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.