Promenade Concert No.374

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn, op. 56a

Johannes Brahms: Born in Hamburg, May 7, 1833; Died in Vienna, April 3, 1897

Musicology being what it was in Brahms?s day, i.e., virtually non-existent, it is hardly surprising to learn that the “theme by Haydn” Brahms used as the basis of his variations is not by Haydn at all. It is probably by one of Haydn’ s students, Ignace Pleyel (1757-1831), and even Pleyel had taken it over from an old pilgrims’ hymn known as the St. Anthony Chorale. This information came to light only in 1951 in an article by the Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon.

Brahms was forty years old when he wrote the Variations. He had still not composed a symphony, and had produced no orchestral works at all in well over a decade. But the success of the “Haydn Variations,” first performed at a Vienna Philharmonic concert on November 2, 1873, proved to be the catalyst that dissolved his inhibitions about the orchestra; his First Symphony appeared three years later, followed by three more over the next decade, every one a masterpiece.

It is easy to understand this turn in Brahms?s life in light of the superb craftsmanship and assured handling of the orchestra as displayed in the Haydn Variations. There is not a note out of place, nor a note too many. Each instrument is exploited for its special tone quality, and each is perfectly integrated into the whole. Notice for example the extra richness the contrabassoon contributes to the blend in the opening presentation of the chorale theme, the special touch of color the two trumpets make as they join in at the end of the first phrase, and the subtle support given by the cellos and double basses playing pizzicato.

The first variation begins where the chorale presentation left off ? with gently pulsing chords echoed by horns, bassoons and timpani, as strings spread outward gracefully. The sense of organic unity is complete. The sound of the woodwind choir (often with horns added) is another prominent feature found throughout the work ? note for example the gently weaving arabesques of combined oboes and bassoons at the beginning of Variation III; or the buoyant, skittering effect of flutes, oboes and bassoons at Variation V. Masterful touches are found on every page of the score.

Tchaikovsky: Variations on a Rococo Theme, op. 33

Introduction: Moderato quasi andante
Theme: Moderato semplice
Variation Ⅰ: Tempo della Thema
Variation Ⅱ: Tempo della Thema
Variation Ⅲ : Andante sostenuto
Variation Ⅳ : Andante grazioso
Variation Ⅴ : Allegro moderato
Variation Ⅵ : Andante
Variation Ⅶ : Allegro vivo

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Born in Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, l840; Died in St. Petersburg, November 6, l893

The Rococo Variations grew out of the admiration Tchaikovsky held generally for music of the mid-to-late eighteenth century, and in particular for that of his favorite composer, Mozart. The term “rococo” refers to a style common in mid-eighteenth-century Europe, a style characterized by delicacy, grace, charm and elegance; hence, a certain spirit of artificiality and lighthearted sentimentality is expressed. Anything particularly dramatic or impassioned would have been in bad taste. Tchaikovsky’ s homage to a bygone era was written in December of l876, more than a century removed from the period it nostalgically evokes. The premiere was given a year later in Moscow, on December 30, 1877, with Wilhelm Fitzenhagen as soloist. Fitzenhagen made numerous and significant changes to Tchaikovsky’ s autograph after it had reached the publisher (Jurgenson). These included touching up the solo part and rearranging the order of the variations. When Jurgenson questioned the composer about the legitimacy of Fitzenhagen’ s work, Tchaikovsky acquiesed, and this is how the composition was published, both in piano reduction (1878) and full score (1889).

The theme is presented by the soloist after a short orchestral introduction. Though presumably Tchaikovsky’ s own, it does indeed breathe a Mozartian air, and is followed by seven variations. The first two are lively, at times even virtuosic for the soloist. A brief passage for woodwinds announces the end of each variation. With the third variation, the mood and tempo change. The writing is more chromatic, the spirit more yearning, the mood more romantic than rococo. At the end, the cello climbs to its uppermost range. The fourth variation is marked by passages of great technical flair for the soloist, often unaccompanied by any orchestral support. A flute presents the theme for the fifth variation, with an accompaniment of trills in the cello. A wide-ranging cadenza for the cello leads into the D-minor sixth variation, where we leave the rococo world to experience the “real” Tchaikovsky in a mournful, deeply emotional passage. The final variation returns to a world of animated gaiety, and is perhaps even a touch too exuberant for the rococo spirit.

Elgar: Enigma Variations, op. 36

Edward Elgar: Born at Broadheath, Worcestershire, England, June 2, 1857; Died in Worcester, February 23, 1934

The premiere of the Enigma Variations on June 19, 1899 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Elgar’s life. Already in his early forties, and with no reputation to speak of outside of his native England, Elgar was still regarded as “a man who hasn’t appeared yet” (his own words). The Enigma Variations changed that dramatically. Following the June premiere, Elgar slightly revised the score, extended the Finale, and saw the work played again and again to enthusiastic audiences not only in England but on the continent and in America as well. So quickly did Elgar’s fame spread now that he was knighted just five years after its premiere. He dedicated the score “to my friends pictured within.”

The identities of those “friends pictured within” constitute one aspect of the title’s enigma. Following the stately theme are fourteen variations, the first and last of which depict Elgar’s wife and his own musical self-portrait, respectively. In between are found idiosyncratic orchestral descriptions of twelve men and women who played important roles in Elgar’s musical and/or social life. Each variation was prefaced with the character’s initials or nickname. Initially Elgar refused to disclose their identities, but later he published a detailed written explanation giving clues.

There is another enigma to the Variations. Elgar never revealed “its ‘dark saying’ … through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’ but is not played.” This unplayed theme, a theme that “never appears,” has mystified the musical world for more than a century. Presumably Elgar’s wife and his friend August Jaeger knew the secret, but they carried it to their graves. The enigma remains.

The theme appears immediately in the violins as a gently rising and falling line. The second part of the theme is shared by strings and woodwinds. With no change of tempo we are introduced to Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife, who had “a romantic and delicate inspiration,” (Elgar’s words). The second variation describes a pianist warming up, the third is a caricature of an actor playing an old man in an amateur theatrical. The full orchestra is heard in the fourth variation describing “a man of abundant energy” (Elgar’s words). Next comes the portrayal of a man of depth and seriousness, then a violist, then the efforts of a piano teacher to instruct a hopeless student. By contrast, the eighth variation depicts the tranquil lifestyle of a gracious lady. Best-known of all the variations is the ninth, known as “Nimrod,” in which Elgar creates a noble and moving tribute to one of his dearest friends. “A dance of fairy-like lightness” (Elgar) is heard in the next variation, followed by the musical portrayal of the antics of a bulldog. The twelfth variation features the cello, the instrument of another of Elgar’s dearest friends. Elgar was even more enigmatic than usual in the penultimate variation, which he entitled simply ***. The asterisks replacing initials were eventually traced to Lady Mary Lygon, who was on a sea voyage to Australia at the time of composition. The final variation is about the composer himself. Here we see his assertive, self-assured side, not the more typical reserved side. The Enigma Variations end with exultant tones.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

Unauthorized copying and replication of the contents of this site, text and images are strictly prohibited. All Rights Reserved.