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The Brahms-Haydn Variations, as this work is commonly referred to, has long been a standard in the repertory of symphony orchestras. And well it should be, for compositionally and instrumentally it is Brahms at his most inventive and appealing. Its listing in orchestral programs as Opus 56a would seem to indicate that it spawned the Opus 56b of the two-piano version. The opposite, however, is true, for Brahms first used the theme for a set of variations for two keyboards, in 1872, and a year later orchestrated them; thus ‘b’ actually comes before ‘a’.
Having cleared up the alphabet confusion, we should address the theme itself. The true history of this tune could have caused Brahms some embarrassment, although in 1870 when he came across a Feldpartita (an 18th-century form of wind music) by Joseph Haydn, there is no way he could have known that, in less than a century, it would be shown that the piece was not an authentic work by the venerable 18th-century master. The apparent discrediting of Haydn as the composition’s author (in 1951 by Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon) would probably have troubled Brahms not a whit, however, since it was the Feldpartita’s second movement that attracted him and that he copied out, and he should have known that it was not by Haydn since it was identified as St. Antonii Chorale.
The (non)Haydn Variations exist on a lofty pianistic plane, emerging as a brilliant template for their eventual orchestral grandeur and with their supreme compositional inventiveness clearly delineated. The theme, in its dignified four-square spirit, emerges mainly in irregular five-bar phrases. Eight ingenious variations, each achieving a distinct character by way of changes of tempo, meter, sonority, mood, rhythmic outline, and deft contrapuntal devices, maintain the precise length of the theme. These eight are capped by a finale in a Baroque form of continuous variation – the passacaglia. Here the passacaglia theme, a variation of the Chorale melody, is presented and then repeated seventeen times as an underpinning for a whole new world of variations above it. This impressive compositional feat ends as the Chorale theme returns, intensified: St. Antonii glorified.
Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association for many years as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute to the program book.