“I shall never write a symphony,” Johannes Brahms once said to his friend Hermann Levi. “You have no idea how the likes of us feel when we hear the tramp of a giant like him behind us.” By him, Brahms meant Beethoven; though Levi presumably did know how Brahms felt, since Levi also began his career as a composer, and never wrote a symphony.
Brahms, of course, eventually did. But before his first symphony in 1876, he wrote several pieces that could be regarded as psychological warm-ups for his first foray into the symphonic genre. The first of these was his German Requiem, following the death of both his friend Robert Schumann and Brahms’ own mother. Then, in the summer of 1873, he took the summer months in Tutzing, a popular vacation spot for wealthy Munichers, and wrote another not-quite-symphony: the Variations on a Theme by Haydn.
The Haydn Variations, as they are popularly called, are remarkable in several ways. One way is the scope of the “variation” of the material; the music strays so far afield of the original material that they may not even sound like “variations” in any scope of transformation that would be obvious to the casual listener. In addition, the original theme is not by Haydn.
The source of the theme was a divertimento for eight wind instruments titled a “feldpartitai,” probably in reference to the fact that wind instruments were still commonly used for outdoor occasions, such as hunting and military purposes, and carried the rough associations of their outdoor use into their emerging usefulness as an orchestral section. The divertimento was first published in 1782, long before copyright law and by extension the idea of exact authorship having significant meaning made their way into Germany; it was common for works by students to be published under their more famous teacher’s name, as is the case here. The divertimento that caught Brahms’ attention was not by Haydn, but likely by his student Ignace Pleyel. Playel, as well as being a successful composer, founded a piano manufacturing company which was the favourite of Chopin, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Ravel, and Stravinsky, among others; the company finally filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors in 2013.
Pleyel’s theme, titled “Chorale St. Antoni” in the divertimento, caught Brahms’ attention for good reason. Although it has a serious, almost religious affect, it is slightly off-kilter from the expectations of a religious chorale: instead of operating in units of four bars, the opening phrase of the theme has five. When Brahms first decided to write a set of variations on it, he in fact wrote it twice: once for two pianos and once for orchestra, produced simultaneously. It was to be his last large-scale work for piano, as the final forty years of his life were focused primarily on orchestral works. The Haydn variations functioned as a sort of bridge between his writing for piano and for orchestra; in the past he had had a habit of composing first for piano and then orchestrating, whereas here he produced both at the same time, and with equal confidence.
Although the connections between the original theme and the variations may be difficult to discern on first listening, they are there in complicated and subtle ways that call to mind Brahms’ relationship to the legacy of Haydn; whereas he kept a bust of Beethoven overtop of his piano to watch him as he worked, he kept a bust of Haydn in his bedroom, presiding over the shadowy realm of dreams. The theme is stated first in the oboes and bassoons, referencing the orchestration of the original theme. The first eight variations that follow reference the phrasing and harmonic structure of the original but the ninth variation, the Finale, returns to the most traditional of devices of variation: canons and counterpoint, spun together into a passacaglia that repeats the five-measure foundation twelve times.
The premiere of the work was given quickly, only a few months after Brahms’ return home from his productive summer vacation. He conducted it himself at the Vienna Philharmonic, to acclaim and a growing confidence in his own powers as an orchestral composer.