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Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897)


Variations on a Theme of Haydn (St. Anthony Variations)

Among the many compositions that comprise the output of Joseph Haydn, there is a Feldpartita in B flat , written in the 1790's for the military band of his employer the Prince Esterhazy. This was written for the unusual combination of 2 oboes, 2 horns, 3 bassoons and a serpent. The second movement is based on an unusual tune, marked in the parts as Choral St. Antoni . This is clearly not an original tune by Haydn, and is believed to be an old pilgrims' chant. What makes the tune unusual is its division into 5-bar and 4-bar phrases, which is most unlike normal classical (or even baroque) tunes, but was quite normal in much earlier times.

Brahms was shown this work in 1870 by a friend who was a musicologist and biographer of Haydn. Brahms was intrigued by it, particularly the second movement theme, and recorded it in a notebook. In the summer of 1873 the seed bore fruit in this set of variations. He wrote it in two forms simultaneously – for piano duet, published as Op.56b, and for orchestra, published as Op.56a. B

B rahms presents the theme first, in an arrangement very close to Haydn's original for oboes and bassoons (but without the serpent – shame!). This is followed by eight separate variations and a finale. Brahms' use of the orchestra is not exotic but always rich, blended and varied.

The first variation is straightforward; the second is in the minor key, and the third peaceful and flowing. The fourth is slower and in the minor key again, while the fifth and sixth are faster and quite rousing. The seventh is a lilting 6/8 featuring the violas quite prominently, and the eighth is back in the minor key again, dark and mysterious. The finale is longer than each variation and is a passacaglia, based on a constantly repeated 5-bar phrase in the bass. This works up from a solemn start to a fine climax, as the theme blazes out in full glory.

Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68
I. Sostenuto - Allegro
II. Andante
III. Un poco allegretto
IV. Adagio - Andante - Allegro non troppo

As a young man, Brahms came to the notice of Robert Schumann, who wrote a famous article praising the young composer and predicting great things in his future. His relationship with Schumann and his wife Clara was quite complex: he admired Robert and his music greatly, and was greatly distressed by the elder composer's mental illness and early death. His feelings for Clara were probably a real and deep love, but owing to his respect for Robert this love was not admitted to by Brahms, and was unrequited by Clara. So his passions were poured into his music, which has an emotional richness which combines with an inner logic and strength which derive from Beethoven.

He had begun sketching a symphony in D minor after first hearing Beethoven's Choral symphony when he was 21. After much effort however, most of this material evolved into the First Piano Concerto, while some ended up in the German Requiem. His awe of Beethoven, and fear of being compared with the great master, meant that his first published symphony had to wait another 20 years for completion, when he was 43. It was first performed in Karlruhe on 4th November, 1876. The public had been eagerly awaiting the symphony, and was not disappointed. After attending the Vienna premiere the following month, the critic Hanslick said that "the symphony is so earnest and complex that it hardly lends itself to quick understanding", but adds that "it is one of the most individual and magnificent works of the symphonic literature". He was right on both counts, though the complexity does not get in the way of ready enjoyment.

The symphony opens with a powerful slow introduction, in which several fragments of themes are presented, but part-formed, indistinctly in the swirling clouds, as it were. These form the basis for the main themes of the allegro proper, in which the tunes stand out hard and stark, like jagged mountain peaks. The development of these themes is complex and subtle, passionate and stormy, but there is a surprise at the end - the movement closes with a coda in the calm sunlight of C major, all passion spent (for the time being).

The slow movement which follows is in the distant key of E major, and begins with a long melody at first on the violins, later taken over by the oboe. This movement is really a long song, which rises to several soaring climaxes, where both strings and woodwind offer new angles on the melody. Towards the end a solo violin both shares the melody and adds its own distinctive decoration.

The gentle allegretto, though it rises to quite a climax in the middle, is largely a respite from the drama so far.

The drama is resolved in the magnificent finale which, like the first movement, begins with a slow introduction which presents shadows of the themes which are to form the real argument. After a stormy C minor section, we reach C major with a glorious horn melody, echoed by the flute. A solemn chorale on the trombones (Brahms has kept them in reserve for this moment) leads into the main allegro section, whose noble melody bears a passing resemblance to the "Ode to Joy" theme from Beethoven's Choral symphony. The material is developed richly and with power and energy. Towards the end the tempo accelerates, and is only interrupted by a reprise of the trombone chorale - this time fortissimo on full orchestra - in its drive to an exultant conclusion.

Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 68
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Adagio non troppo
III. Allegretto / Presto
IV. Allegro con spirito

"The novelty was a great, unqualified success" wrote the critic Hanslick, after the first performance of Brahms' second symphony, given by the Vienna Philharmonic under Hans Richter on 30th December 1877. It followed only a year after his first symphony, and was naturally compared to that work. Brahms had led his friends well up the garden path, claiming to his publisher that the symphony "is so melancholy that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning." (Nov.22nd, 1877) He persisted in the joke right up to (and after!) the first performance, which made the contrast with the seriousness of the first symphony all the greater.

A dark four-note figure in the bass introduces the first theme of the Allegro non troppo on horns and wood-wind. A second theme on full orchestra is more lively, while the lovely third theme is sung expressively by violas and cellos. These three tunes form the basis of the development of the movement, which is largely rich and lyrical. The orchestra is well-blended (quite a contrast with the harsher colours of the Shostakovich earlier!) with the trombones and timpani kept in reserve until the bigger climaxes. The coda to the movement is surprisingly not triumphant, but gentle and tranquil.

The slow movement Adagio non troppo opens with another fine tune for violas and cellos (who have a grateful part to play in the whole symphony). After a climax, a calm woodwind passage winds its way over plucked strings, before the strings introduce a more urgent tone. The mood lightens, however, and the main themes are expounded once more. This is capped by a confident passage for brass before the movement reaches its conclusion.

The Allegretto is the most pastoral movement. The oboe gives out the melody in triple time, accompanied by wind and pizzicato celli. Strings hustle along in 2/4 for a while, but the wind glide back to the original tempo. Another faster section interrupts for a period, before the movement ends with the serenity with which it began.

The finale begins quickly but quietly, with great suppressed energy. Very soon the full orchestra bursts in with a jubilant continuation, which continues until a quiet section prepares for the second main theme on violins and violas. After urgent development, a point of calm and repose is reached ... out of which the first theme emerges quietly, as at the opening. The second theme takes over for a while, and begins to drive the movement to the brilliant coda. Hanslick said of this work that "Mozartian blood flows in its veins"; personally I find that this finale looks forward to the cock-a-hoop ending of Mahler's fifth symphony. There is certainly no doubt that this is one of the greatest affirmative endings in all music!

Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98
I. Allegro non troppo
II. Andante moderato
III. Allegro giocoso
IV. Allegro energico e passionato

Brahms is a composer of contradictions. He has a reputation for solid tradition and conservative values, yet he was both passionate and innovative in his music. He certainly knew how to enjoy himself: he loved his coffee, cigars and wine, and could drink considerable quantities of German beer. He never married but had deep affections for several women, most notably Clara Schumann, the pianist and wife - later widow - of composer Robert Schumann. When Clara died in 1896 Brahms seemed to lose his will to live: he only survived Clara by about nine months.

Like many composers Brahms had to spend most of the winter months in a busy round of concerts, promoting and performing his music. Composition was concentrated into summer holidays, and the fourth symphony was written over the two summers of 1884 and 1885. He spent them at a little Austrian village west of Vienna called Murzzuschlag, completing the symphony there in October 1885. It was first performed with Brahms himself conducting at Meiningen, in Germany, on 25th October that same year. Further performances rapidly followed, and within a year it had been played to great acclaim in all the main German cities, as well as in Holland and London.

The symphony opens with a wide-ranging melody, full of longing and nostalgia. A second theme first heard on the cellos is more assertive, while a third motive is based on a bold triplet figuration. All three subjects form the basis for this rich movement, which develops continually to a stormy and passionate close.

The andante, though nominally in E major, starts with a stern horn call in C major. The first part is accompanied by pizzicato strings, while a second theme is first sung on the cellos. A central section develops both themes up to a powerful climax, but the end is calm and serene.

The third movement is a boisterous scherzo in character. Its main theme is a combination of three quite distinct short motives, each with a different rhythm. Mostly loud and assertive, the whole movement has a slightly panicky edge to it, as if it knows that the finale is to bring tragedy.

The great finale is a unique creation, a set of over thirty variations on the motto theme given out in the first eight bars. No-one had attempted such a symphonic finale before, and Brahms brings it off brilliantly. The tragic power is only highlighted by the four slower variations in the middle, the first of which features one of the most desperately sad flute solos ever written. At the end the tempo accelerates, and the final variations hammer home the deep tragedy of this, Brahms' final symphonic masterpiece.

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