Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn

1   Chorale St. Antoni: Andante
2   Variation I : Poco più animato
3   Variation II : Più vivace
4   Variation III : Con moto
5   Variation IV : Andante con moto
6   Variation V : Vivace
7   Variation VI : Vivace
8   Variation VII : Grazioso
9   Variation VIII : Presto non troppo
10  Finale: Andante

The theme we hear at the beginning of the Variations is taken from the second of a set of divertimenti for wind ensemble, thought to be composed by Haydn in the 1790’s. Brahms titled his composition accordingly, crediting Haydn for the theme, however, subsequent research has shown that the wind piece does not fit Haydn’s style, and so the original composer is still unclear. The wind ensemble uses a tune titled ‘Chorale St Antoni’, a chorale which is believed to originate from an old pilgrim’s hymn sung on St Anthony’s Day, hence the Brahms Variations are also known as the ‘St Anthony Variations’.

What makes the chorale tune unusual is its division into 5-bar and 4-bar phrases, which is unlike most usual classical (or even baroque) tunes, but was quite normal in much earlier times.

Composed in 1873 at Tutzing, Bavaria, it is thought that Brahms originally wrote the Variations for two pianos. He showed the piece to Clara Schumann, his longtime friend and supporter and they performed the two-piano version of the piece together at a private gathering in Bonn, Germany. Around that time he had also prepared the orchestral version and this was premiered in the same year by the Vienna Philharmonic, with the composer conducting.

Brahms obviously intended the work to be a tribute to Haydn. In the coda of the finale he quotes directly from the second movement of Haydn’s clock symphony, which he regarded as one of the greatest symphonic movements of the classical period.