About this work
In Brahms' earliest sets of variations, especially those of Op. 9, the melody is of primary importance. His later studies of Beethoven, however, led to a new variation approach, in which he adhered instead to a theme's basic phrase structure and harmonic pattern. As with the Händel Variations, Op. 24, the eight Variations on a Theme of Haydn, Op. 56a, are bound by a consistent harmonic motion; at times, this is the only perceptible remnant of the original theme. Since its first performance in Vienna, on November 2, 1873, this has been among Brahms' most popular compositions -- a sprawling masterwork based on the simplest of thematic germs, very much in the tradition of Bach's Goldberg Variations and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.
Brahms composed both the orchestral and two-piano versions of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn in the summer of 1873, while at the Starnberger See near Munich; during the same months, he completed the String Quartets, Op. 51. The piano variations, Op. 56b, were published first, in 1873 by Simrock in Berlin; the orchestral setting in 1874, also by Simrock.
Commonly referred to as the "St. Anthony" variations, the piece is based on a theme from the first of a set of six Divertimenti (Feldparthien) -- for many years thought to be by Haydn, but now thought to be by Haydn's pupil, Ignace Pleyel -- the second movement of which is based on an old Burgenland (an Austrian state that abuts Hungary) chant entitled, "Chorale St. Anthony."
Brahms shatters the stately atmosphere of the theme with a pulsating horn passage in the first variation, in which the melodic aspect of the theme has all but disappeared. A great outburst from the strings accents the second variation, while the third returns to the character of the theme, if not the original rhythm and pitches. A climbing woodwind tune traces the general shape of the theme in the quiet fourth variation, while the fifth takes off at lightning speed, emphasizing the falling intervals in the original theme. Brass and winds initiate the martial sixth variation, in which the theme is easily recognized. The seventh variation has some of the character of a Strauss waltz, while slithering contrapuntal lines noodle their way through the eighth. The work closes with a passacaglia in which the theme, gently articulated at first by the woodwinds at the opening, returns with the force of the full orchestra. The repeated, five-measure bass line of the passacaglia is derived from the main theme; because the bass line provides the variation material in this last segment, what we have are variations on a variation of the original theme.