Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn

From Academic Kids

The Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, consisting of a theme, eight variations, and a finale, was composed in 1873 by Johannes Brahms. It was published in two versions: the variations for two pianos, written first but designated Op. 56b, and the same piece for orchestra, referred to as Op. 56a.

The orchestral version is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 French horns (2 in E flat, 2 in B flat), 2 trumpets, timpani, triangle, and the normal string section of first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.

Origin of the theme

Recent scholarship has revealed that, despite the title of the work, the theme is very unlikely to be by Haydn. 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 while current usage still prefers the original title, Variations on the St. Anthony Chorale is the name favored by those who object to perpetuating a misattribution. Even that name, however, tells us very little: To date, no other mention of the so-called "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 passacaglia, itself a 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 m. 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). Ironically, this fragmentary allusion may be the music's sole remaining link to the Master.

External links

The score ( of Brahms's Variations has been posted by the William and Gayle Cook Music Library ( at the Indiana University School of Music ( The same library is the source of the Haydn link included in the comparison above.


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