Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a

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            Good things often come in modest packages, and this work is unquestionably one of those.  Many have observed that Johannes Brahms was the major successor to the legacy of Beethoven in a century filled with musical progressives who moved in other directions.  The darlings of that time—and in many regards, of today, as well—were those, like Wagner and Liszt, who opted for hyper expressive means that explored new forms and which relaxed the conventions of the classic style.  Brahms was the champion of those who eschewed extra-musical associations (stories and ideas, if you will), and persisted in composing music that referred to nothing but itself.  He resisted more than anyone the blandishments of Wagner and company.

            This set of variations for orchestra was written in 1873, and is eloquent testimony to the composer’s growing mastery of the technique of variation.   The variations are based upon a simple little theme that at the time of Brahms’ composition was thought to be by Joseph Haydn—we now know that the attribution is incorrect.   But, the name lives on, in any case.  Brahms’ variations are not the common kind that takes a memorable melody and simply embellishes it with growing animation and figuration as one follows along with the skeleton of the melody.  Rather, those of Brahms’ “Haydn” variations are what are known as “character” variations.   They abstract some small aspect—often without a clear connection in the listener’s mind—and create a series of meditations and rhapsodic developments in which the melody is not often palpable.

            The theme itself, however simple, is interesting in that it is comprised of two five-measure phrases—more commonly one will find four-measure phrases.  The “extra” bar can easily be heard as the third measure in each of the two main phrases (count it for yourself).   Following the statement of the theme are eight “character” variations and an extended finale.  Hearing a connection between a character variation and the original theme can be difficult, but a close listen to the second variation will reveal how Brahms has constructed an entire section out of just the first three notes of the theme.  Listen for it for a lesson in imagination!  Other variations ensue accordingly.  Particularly ingratiating is the seventh variation, wherein one hears, perhaps, most clearly, a connection with the style of Brahms’ wonderful short works for piano, especially the ballades and intermezzos.   Brahms often composed works first for two pianos before orchestrating them, and if you listen to that version of this work, the putative connection is easy to hear.

            The finale is a tour de force of Brahms’ mastery of the higher techniques of traditional composition.  J. S. Bach, himself, would have been proud of Brahms’ infusion into this section of all manner of contrapuntal devices.  It’s a veritable textbook of counterpoint:  canons, double counterpoint, and more.   But the important point is that they don’t have to be understood, or even heard clearly, to sense the profound, but universal appeal of one of Brahms’ greatest achievements.   And it all takes place without the slightest need for a “story.”  This is music spun from music, alone.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan