Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56b
Though two of the works on the program for this duo recital are by Brahms, he actually recast both of them in other forms. He dressed up his Haydn Variations in orchestral garb, and the Sonata in F minor, which started life as a now-lost string quintet, became a piano quintet.
The duo piano incarnations of both of these works are different enough from their better-known later selves to merit investigation. Brahms knew this, assigning both works independent opus numbers and advertising himself as their composer (something he didn’t do, for example, with his two-piano arrangement of his Fourth Symphony).
In the Haydn Variations, Brahms used the clearer texture of duo pianos to point up contrasts between variations (for example, the lyrical counterpoint of Variation III and the unsettling musical wilderness of Variation IV) or within variations themselves (the imposing opening chords of Variation II and the sneaky, skittish figurations that follow). In their orchestral version, the Variations take on a different character – Variation II, for instance, sounds alternately menacing, with the opening chords played by the full orchestra, and insinuating.
Brahms composed the Haydn Variations during a summer retreat in 1873 (and it really was a retreat – the maid at his inn found an invitation from a group of local artists to join their meetings torn up on the floor of the master’s room). The theme for the variations came into Brahms’ hands via his fascination with music manuscripts. In 1870, C.F. Pohl, Haydn biographer and librarian of the Vienna Philharmonic Society, showed the “Chorale St. Antoni” to Brahms, who copied it. (Perhaps because of his all-consuming interest in Haydn, Pohl mistakenly attributed the chorale to that composer.) The work premiered in its duo piano version on February 10, 1874 and was Brahms’ last large-scale piano work. He would focus increasingly on the orchestra for the remaining 23 years of his life.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also written for Los Angeles Opera, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.
Length: 17 minutes