The Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, (German: Variationen über ein Thema von Jos. Haydn), now also called the Saint Anthony Variations, is a work in the form of a theme and variations, composed by Johannes Brahms in the summer of 1873 at Tutzing in Bavaria. It consists of a theme in B♭ major based on a "Chorale St Antoni", eight variations, and a finale. The work was published in two versions: for two pianos, written first but designated Op. 56b; and for orchestra, designated Op. 56a.
The orchestral version is better known and much more often heard than the two-piano version. It is often said to be the first independent set of variations for orchestra in the history of music, although there is at least one earlier piece in the same form, Antonio Salieri's Twenty-six Variations on 'La folia di Spagna' written in 1815.
Brahms's orchestral variations are scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns (2 in E♭, 2 in B♭), 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, and the normal string section of first and second violins, violas, cellos and double basses. The piece usually takes about 18 minutes to perform.
The first performance of the orchestral version was given on 2 November 1873 by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under Brahms's baton.
Origin of the theme
Brahms composed the work on a theme entitled "Chorale St. Antoni" found in a wind ensemble composition. At the time Brahms discovered it, the wind ensemble piece carried an attribution to the composer Joseph Haydn. Brahms titled his own composition accordingly, crediting Haydn for the theme, but publishers in the early nineteenth century often attached the names of famous composers to works by unknown or lesser known composers in order to move inventory. Subsequent research has concluded that the wind piece Brahms used as a source does not fit Haydn's style. Today the wind ensemble piece remains without clear attribution.
The situation has led to Brahms's piece being referred to today in recordings and concert programs as the St. Anthony Variations as well as its original title.
A detailed survey of the controversy can be found in Douglas Yeo's 2004 edition of the "Haydn" piece (ISMN M-57015-175-1). In 1870, Brahms's friend Carl Ferdinand Pohl, the librarian of the Vienna Philharmonic Society, who was working on a Haydn biography at the time, showed Brahms a transcription he had made of a piece attributed to Haydn titled Divertimento No. 1. The second movement bore the heading "St. Anthony Chorale", and it is this movement which, in its entirety, forms the theme on which the variations are based. Brahms's statement of the theme varies in small but significant ways from the original, principally with regard to instrumentation. Some sources state the Divertimento was probably written by Ignaz Pleyel, but this has not been definitively established. A further question is whether the composer of the divertimento actually wrote the "St. Anthony Chorale" or simply quoted an older theme taken from an unknown source. To date, no other mention of a "St. Anthony Chorale" has been found.
The theme begins with a repeated ten-measure passage which itself consists of two intriguing five-measure phrases, a quirk that is likely to have caught Brahms's attention. Almost without exception, the eight variations follow the phrasal structure of the theme and, though less strictly, the harmonic structure as well. Each has a distinctive character, several calling to mind the forms and techniques of earlier eras, with some displaying a mastery of counterpoint seldom encountered in Romantic music.
The finale is a magnificent theme and variations on a ground bass, five measures in length, derived from the principal theme. Its culmination, a restatement of the chorale, is a moment of such transcendence that the usually austere Brahms permits himself the use of a triangle.
Just before the end of the piece, in the coda of the finale, Brahms quotes a passage that really is by Haydn. In mm. 463-464, the violas and cellos echo the cello line from measure 148 of the second movement of the latter's "Clock" Symphony, one of the finest examples of Haydn's pioneering work in the symphonic variation form. The reader may compare the two passages by following these links: Brahms, Haydn (see below for link credits). This fragmentary allusion may be the music's sole link to Haydn.
The sections are named and tempo markings given as follows. Where the tempo markings of the two versions differ, the one for Op. 56b is shown in parentheses.
This is a performance of the version for two pianos. The pianists are Neal and Nancy O'Doan.