Length: c. 18 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 18, 1925, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
When Brahms agreed to become artistic director of Vienna’s Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1872, he was already a musical scholar with a great sense of historical development and performance, especially in the music of Bach and Handel. In his capacity as artistic director, he planned and conducted a majority of programs emphasizing old over contemporary music. Prior to his brief tenure as artistic director of the Gesellschaft (1872-75), indeed upon his first arriving in Vienna in 1863, Brahms had established contact with the Vienna Philharmonic Society to gain access to scores for study, and befriended the Society’s librarian, Haydn biographer Karl Ferdinand Pohl. At that time Pohl was in possession of manuscripts and copies of works attributed to Haydn, including a set of six divertimentos for wind instruments. Brahms, ever fascinated by music of past masters, and an admirer of Haydn’s work, looked through the Divertimenti with great interest. Eventually, his attention was drawn to the music of the slow movement of No. 6 of the collection, which was titled “Chorale Sti. Antonii” (Chorale of St. Anthony). It was this music that became the basis for Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a.
Modern scholarship has established that the theme is not, after all, by Haydn. The evidential reasoning for this conclusion rests largely on the fact that the scoring of the original is quite unlike Haydn’s usual scoring for wind band. It is thought that the melody is that of an old Burgenland pilgrim’s chant with the obvious title “Chorale Sti. Antonii.”
Brahms scored the theme, presented at the beginning, very close to the original scoring in the Divertimento, that is, in the winds and brass with the addition of pizzicatos in cello and double bass.
The eight variations that follow adhere to the harmonic pattern established in the theme with minor fluctuations. Variations 1 and 3 are pastoral in nature. Variations 2, 4, and 8 are in the minor mode; 2 and 4 are plaintive in character, while 8 is scherzo-like. Variation 5 is a scherzo while Variation 6 is a quick rustic dance; Variation 7 is a lilting Grazioso. The Finale is a passacaglia built on a five-bar phrase of the theme stated twelve times in the bass, three statements in the treble, and one more statement in the bass, upon which the theme returns for full orchestra as the crowning last gesture.
— Steve Lacoste