Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn

Brahms was born into intense poverty in Hamburg in May 1833. He revealed his musical gifts as a small child, making up his own melodies which he recorded with his own notation. In his teens he earned much needed cash playing the piano in taverns and giving piano lessons.

Later he was accompanist to the Hungarian violinist Eduard Remeny, and through tours with him met many musicians including the Schumanns. As those of you who attempted the Quiz on Patrons’ Evening know, Brahms never married but after Schumann’s death he was devoted to Clara.

In his mid twenties Brahms hoped to launch his career as an orchestral composer, with his 1st Piano Concerto. He was in Beethoven’s shadow and in 1859 it was not well received. He then turned his attention to writing variations for solo piano and found this encouraging. He wrote his variations on Haydn’s theme – St. Anthony Chorale – in 1873 when he was 40. He always intended it to be an orchestral work, but he took the precaution of writing a second version for two pianos. This was equally impressive. In these variations the St. Anthony Chorale theme is boldly introduced by the oboe and wind and is similar to Haydn’s own orchestration. The eight variations stay surprisingly close to the original theme, but cover a wide range of moods and expression. The magnificent finale gives a glimpse of Brahms’ ability as a symphony writer. If this work is new to you, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.