This masterpiece is an early example of theme and variations for orchestra and has become emblematic of the genre. But who actually wrote the theme Brahms uses, how does he expand on the theme to create variations, and how does it stand apart? John Banther and Evan Keely discuss it all and even make a connection from Brahms to progressive rock. 

Show Notes

Performances of both versions of this work

Wiener Philharmoniker with L. Bernstein conducting, Musikvereinssaal, Vienna April 1972.

Ensemble Q live performance at Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, Ruby Luck & Daniel de Borah, pianos (2021)



John Banther: John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Kiwi, and we're talking all about the Variations on a Theme by Haydn by Johannes Brahms. There is a lot to learn about this emblematic work, no matter how many times you've heard it, like Brahms use of uncommon phrase, lengths, his rich orchestration, a couple of new musical terms, progressive rock, and is the theme even by Haydn at all. This work is a favorite for many, myself included, actually. I love the color and just sound and timbre that Brahms brings to the table with his orchestral works. I think this is also an early example, Evan, of a theme and variations for orchestra?


Evan Keely: Yeah, there are not a lot of other pieces we can think of which are just an orchestral piece where it's just theme and variations and that's the entire piece. You might find a theme and variations as part of a larger orchestral work, but this is an example of that theme and variations where the entire piece is just that.


John Banther: And I always love when an early example of something becomes so emblematic of the form or the genre. I think this one also contains a rather important lesson, one that you can't get by listening to the music, but by rather knowing some juicy information about it. And that is unbeknownst to Brahms, the theme here is not by Haydn. In fact, we aren't 100% sure who came up with it. Maybe a student of his, Pleyel. Maybe, I kind of doubt it. But Brahms came across a movement called Chorale St Antoni in a Divertimento, which is just a small light composition, and Haydn was listed as the composer. The problem was still at this point, I think it wasn't too uncommon for some publishers just to slap a famous name onto some music to just get it out the door.


Evan Keely: Yeah, it's possible. That was an innocent misunderstanding on the part of the publisher, or as you say, maybe they were trying to sell scores, gives you a sense of how revered Haydn continued to be even into the 1870s, which is appropriate. But you do wonder if Brahms would've been as interested in this tune had it not had Haydn's name on it, even though that was erroneous.


John Banther: That's a good point because I think that's where this lesson comes in, don't judge a book by its cover. Brahms saw it, enjoyed the theme, and of course had the name Haydn attached to it. Without the name Haydn, I don't know if he would've used it for a theme for an orchestral work, especially an earlier one of his. It seems like he might not have done it, although he may have enjoyed the music either way. So it's just a great lesson. Well, don't judge something just because it has a famous name on it, or not.


Evan Keely: It is a wonderful little tune though.


John Banther: It is, and it provides a fantastic jumping off point for variations and everything we are about to hear. And Brahms does actually quote Haydn very late in the piece. Kind of clever too, I think. So stay with us for that. Now, this premiered in 1873 with Brahms conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, and I think we can go ahead and see, Evan, well was the one that Brahms heard, and how does he introduce the theme himself? So here is that Divertimento that we've erroneously given credit to Haydn. Here is that Chorale St Antoni. And if we compare that to how Brahms introduces the theme. Already I'm so in love with that when it repeats or comes back in, Evan, it's so much richer and grander. A lot of the voicing is intact from what was written in that Chorale St Antoni and what Brahms uses for the opening here. A lot of the voicing intact, and I love how he keeps the oboe as the kind of principle leading instrument. It has a very sweet kind of timbre to it.


Evan Keely: It's a wonderful evocation of the tradition of what in the German language is called the Harmonie, which is a small wind ensemble. Haydn and Mozart were composers that wrote a lot of this music. Think of the final scene of Mozart's opera, Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni is gorging himself at a banquet and there's a wind band playing on the stage. So that's a tradition that I think Brahms is evoking. He's taking this tune from the 18th century with this wind band kind of sound. And with the pizzicato strings, as you mentioned, it gives it a sort of extra richness.


John Banther: Yes. What I love about Brahms is his orchestration, how he chooses which instrument plays what. It gives all of his orchestral music, in my opinion, a sound of like a rich, decadent dessert. It's creamy, it's got the right sweetness, it's not too much, and it always has you asking, oh, what is that? Is that a little cinnamon here? Is that a little nutmeg? There's always a little something else. And I think that's... Here, the cinnamon is that pizzicato on the cello and bass.


Evan Keely: Yeah, there's little subtle touches that Brahms is so wonderful with in his orchestration. I think of the opening moment of the German Requiem where the violins are silent for the entire movement and there's that sort of dark rich sound. Brahms is a very... He's not a daring orchestrator. He doesn't do wild things that make you fall out of your chair. They're subtle, but there's such a richness to what he's able to create with the voicings


John Banther: And the phrasing. It's a little different, isn't it? We're so used to phrases being in groups of 8, 16, 32 in a large kind of scale. Here instead of four, eight and 16 and so on. It's groups of five measures, groups of 10 measure phrases. Very unusual, or not so unusual, but really kind of atypical, especially for your principle theme that you're going to use to create a whole set of variations. I find it quite surprising. It's not something I was totally aware of either.


Evan Keely: I didn't really notice it for a long time. And so much of western music is, as you said, the phrases are in multiples of four, and I've heard this piece so many times over the years, and it was a long time before I even noticed that's a five- bar phrase... two... three... four... five... It's a five- bar phrase. It's an unusual metric, and the tune is so winsome, you don't really notice it right away. But Brahms really plays with that number throughout the set of variations.


John Banther: And it gives here, at least in the opening movement, such a perpetual grand march going forward. And I love this about music that we're... When we're looking back centuries and how things kind of affect each other, there's been a kind of knock on effect from this unknown composer, whoever penned this thing, it got passed off as Haydn one way or the other. Brahms believed it. He wrote this piece and it's even brought influence all the way up to this piece that is called Hamburger Concerto, that is the name of this music, Hamburger Concerto. This was on an album by the Dutch progressive rock band, Focus. And that's one of my favorite things about music, it's just all these interesting details and knock on effects that go on for centuries.


Evan Keely: I love the way we have these syncretism in music and why shouldn't a progressive rock band be evoking Brahms and Haydn?


John Banther: So after this theme, we get right into the first variation. This one, the more I look at it, the more it's actually quite bold of Brahms here. Usually you have a nice theme and then on the variation there's a little something added to it, a little extra something in the rhythm. Something is developed a little bit to create a variation. Brahms almost goes in the opposite direction. He takes away a lot of the moving notes from the theme, and we're left with this bare skeleton of a melody, which is just a lot of repeating notes.


Evan Keely: Yeah, well, the technical term is anadiplosis where you end one movement and then begin the next movement in much the same way. So you have this quarter note... ending the theme, and then he begins the first variation with that same... there's just those sort of plotting quarter notes. You almost don't even notice, oh, we're done with the theme now. We're doing something else. He kind of slips you into the variations in a subtle way.


John Banther: What was that called again?


Evan Keely: Anadiplosis.


John Banther: Anadiplosis. I like that. And we already can tell in the first variation, there's not just repetition with this kind of note, but in the structure as well, a lot of things are repeating here. You see in the score literal repeats to go back and play the music again.


Evan Keely: Right. And there's a repeat sign in both of these sections of the theme Brahms plays without throughout the variations. Some of the variations have those repeat signs and some of them don't. But we can get more into that as we move along.


John Banther: And these variations they are kind of short. Going into the second variation now it feels like we're getting some rhythm added back in with that dotted eighth, 16th... and then it kind of repeats in the wind section. And also a lot of call and response here. That is something also very characteristic of Brahms, especially his other orchestral works, his symphonies that would come later. A lot of one kind of short statement and then shorter or just other statements in response to that in different sections and different instruments.


Evan Keely: One of the things I love about this variation is every single phrase begins with the same sort of rhythmic figure... but there's always that... kind of like an emphatic, get your attention, and then each time it's a bit different.


John Banther: And that moment you were just describing, it's what reminds me of ballet. Some of my favorite moments in music I have been working in ballet. And in a lot of ballet. It's a lot of repeating figures like that, especially with Tchaikovsky for instance, and a lot of regimented phrasing because the dancing is choreographed, it's regimented and in very, very strict groups. So getting these continued five measure phrases, 10 measure phrases, which continues, it just gives me that kind of ballet feeling. And I think this has been choreographed before too.


Evan Keely: Well, it has a sort of danceable quality as so many of these variations do. But the other thing you were pointing out just now was this sense of this rhythmic regularity, that sort of fanfare... that begins each phrase. It comes in a very predictable way, and Brahms keeps it from getting boring by varying it each time.


John Banther: This isn't Brahms's first set of variations ever. He had written several before this for the piano, and it sounds like he had some pretty staunch opinions about the form of theme and variations.


Evan Keely: Yes. Well, this is an interesting thing too. There's variations in a lot of Brahms' work, and by this point, he had already written the Handel Variations, Keyboard Work, or the Paganini Variations, but there's a gap of almost 10 years if you look at all the variations that Brahms has written either as an independent work or as a movement of a larger work. 1873 is the year he writes the Haydn Variations, and there's nine years going backward when you have the previous set. So he spent nine years not writing any variations, and then he writes this set of variations, and that's a fascinating thing to wonder what he was sort of germinating through in his mind as he had that sort of nine year break from writing variations. Clearly a very important form to him, and we have a number of his letters to friends and colleagues where he's writing about variations.

And there's this 1856 letter to his good friend, the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim, who by the way, was the first violinist to play the Brahms Violin Concerto, and Brahms consulted with him a lot. And in 1856, he wrote to Joachim and he wrote, " From time to time I reflect on the variation form and find that it should be kept stricter, purer. Those in old times are very strict about retaining the base of the theme, their actual theme with Beethoven, the melody, harmony, and rhythm are so beautifully varied". So Brahms, throughout his career, we see him being really aware of the past. There's a famous remark he has about Beethoven and walking in the footsteps of a giant and so forth. He's really trying to respect what past geniuses have accomplished and bring that into his own music.


John Banther: Also, you mentioned the Handel Variations, another great set of theme and variations by Brahms. You can see that although this is his first for orchestra, this is not something he's not been thinking about, at least. The Handel Variations sound so rich and orchestral in their sound. You can almost hear exactly how he would go from the piano to the orchestra, and in fact, with this set of heightened variations, he wrote a version for 2 Pianos, didn't he?


Evan Keely: Well, it starts off as a work for 2 Pianos, and then he orchestrated it, which is not something Brahms often did. He wrote a lot of keyboard music, of course, and he wrote a smaller body of orchestral music, and we'll talk about that a little later in the episode. But here he wrote the 2 Pianos version and then he orchestrated it, and yet you can't help but he here, even in the Pianos version, there's a very orchestral quality, and you hear that in a lot of his keyboard music. I think that, as you said, the Handel Variations is a wonderful example of that. There's an orchestral quality to a lot of that keyboard music as well.


John Banther: And that brings us into the third variation where it feels like the rhythm is kind of going, we're splitting the difference of the two extremes before. We're kind of more back in the middle. Still lots of great call and response, very Brahmsian in a way that we hear in his symphonies to come later. And this one is kind of like a chorale as well, isn't it?


Evan Keely: Especially at the very beginning. And again, there's that wind band kind of sound that you hear at the beginning of this variation. That's a theme throughout the whole piece.


John Banther: This one does not use repeat signs though, right? Before we've had repeats in all of them. This one we don't.


Evan Keely: Right. So he preserves a repeat signs from the theme and variations one and two. In variation three, the thematic material is repeated, but there isn't a repeat sign in the music. You don't play exactly what you just had like you would do with a repeat sign. Instead, he has a separate varied aspect there. So the material is repeated but differently.


John Banther: And looking into variation four, we can look at something that Brahms is specifically doing in the music, a little bit of music theory, and that is invertible counterpoint. Tell us about this invertible counterpoint.


Evan Keely: Invertible counterpoint is when you have two different things playing simultaneously, and then you flip them. So you'll have something on top, the higher voice playing one particular melodic line, and then the bass voice below it playing something different, and then they switch places and the bass becomes the melody, and the melody previously becomes the bass.

Something Brahms does a lot throughout his music, but in this set of variations in particular, he uses it a great deal. And it's easy as you're listening to not notice it. If you look at the score, even if you don't read music, you can see, oh, look, that figure is down here and it used to be up there, and he does this a lot of the set of variations. It's one of his clever little things that makes Brahms' music so delightful. It's wonderful to listen to, it's just very pleasing, and yet from a music nerd perspective, if you're a geek like me, you look at the score and you see these very technical things that he does, which are also part of the delight and the joy of his music.


John Banther: For me, Brahms is such a genius with all of these things. It's kind of like a Formula One car. It looks so pretty on the outside and it's so fast and you just enjoy it. But underneath, it's some of the most complicated stuff you can imagine. But we don't have to know it to enjoy it, as you said, all the stuff that he's pulling off. Also, this isn't just, oh, you just flipped the parts and that's it. If you do that with anything, it's not going to sound quite right. So if you were playing a solo, Evan, on an instrument like a trumpet or flute, and I was playing on the piano, the accompaniment, if we just switched parts, it's not really invertible counterpoint, it's not going to sound right or the same. You can only play one note at a time. Now I'm only plunking out one note at a time on the piano.

So it's a lot more than just flipping them. And you see all that in the music as you said. In the score you can just recognize it right away, oh, this is here now it's there, now it's there. It's like a picture being moved around.


Evan Keely: Yes. Well, as you said, the technical complexity is part of the charm, whether you're consciously aware of it or not. So this is the second of the variations that's in a minor key. The variation two was the first one that's in B flat minor. This one also in B flat minor. The minor key related to B flat major of the theme. And this is the first of the variations that takes the theme and turns it into triple time. So the theme is in 2, 4, 1, 2, 1, 2, and this one is in three, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. Interestingly enough, Brahms writes the direction, dolce e semplice in the score. We don't often see a lot of these kinds of things in Brahms' music. Why does he say that? Dolce e semplice, sweet and simple, and I find that really fascinating. This is sort of maybe kind of a pensive, you might even say mournful minor tune.

And yet Brahms wants it to be sweet and simple. Maybe he doesn't want it to be this very sort of modeling, sort of dragging funeral sound. He wants something that's very elegant, very simple. It maybe it's almost like a slow waltz like, I think the Valse Américaine, the very slow, three... You feel, again, there's that dance like quality that we find in so many of these variations is very present in this one.

And Brahms was not really keen on program music. You think of a composer like Liszt, for example, writing around the same time, these very elaborate symphonic poems, they're painting a picture musically, which is a wonderful thing. Brahms wasn't as enthusiastic about that whole style of composition. He's much more into what we would call absolute music. There's no program, there's no story. It's just music for its own sake. And so when you have this dolce e semplice coming from Brahms who is so focused on just music for its own sake, it's really fascinating to wonder what's that? Is there a deeper meaning there? And as we listen to this being performed, we may or may not have an answer to that, but we can just enjoy this sweet and simple tune.


John Banther: Yeah, I love that slow waltz. It does have this very intriguing ballroom aspect to it. And it's so funny because you're talking about Liszt and all of the extraordinary things he's depicting in music and looking at Brahms, just him, including dolce e semplice. It's like opening up a treasure chest or something. What does he mean here by this? I'm wondering if it's also a part of... At this time, of course, there's no recordings, metronome markings aren't exact or utilized. Still things are described in Italian, allegro, vivace or whatever.

So I wonder if this is a way for him to also really ensure that this one is played not too slow, but also not too fast. Because when we get into the fifth movement, there is quite a contrast and a similar rhythmic feeling, I think, and the dolce, including that tempers everything down a little bit to give that contrast to the fifth one. And with the fifth one, we're also back into a major key. And so far things have been so very strict and very obvious, downbeat, downbeat. It's been very, very, very clear here. It starts to get a little unclear, right? It starts to feel like Beethoven in a sense.


Evan Keely: Yeah, I do feel like this is a kind of a nod to Beethoven. You think about, for example, the very opening of the final movement of Beethoven's ninth Symphony, and there's this marvelous fanfare. One of the things that I find fascinating about that is I never know where the beat is. I think Beethoven doesn't want us to know, and Brahms is doing that. I think in this fifth variation, Nick, where is the downbeat?... He's deliberately confusing things in a way that's so beguiling. And so there's a kind of subtle and sophisticated whimsy about it.


John Banther: Yeah. And this is one of the shortest ones I think as well. I think Brahms and Bruckner did a really good job at this kind of Beethovenian fast, where's the beat scared so kind of sound. Coming from Beethoven I think those two did it, very well, good example here.


Evan Keely: This is also the first variation that's in triple time. We have the slow three earlier, but this is in six, eight, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The first variation that does that and also adds to that dance light quality. And again, it's part of what makes it hard to find where the downbeat is.


John Banther: And we'll get into the sixth variation right after this. Going into the sixth variation, it feels like a nice continuation of the fifth. And we hear the horns as well. This is a classic, I think Brahms hallmark. He loves the horns, he provides, I think really some of the richest color in the orchestra, and he puts that in the horn section. And of course, Brahms liked the horn. He learned how to play the horn, I believe maybe from his father or something. When he was quite young, he really was infatuated with the instrument really, I think his entire life. He was really just a lover of the horn, and he included a lot of solos for it in his symphonies too.


Evan Keely: Sure. The slow movement of the fourth symphony is an obvious example. The horn trio is an obvious example, and the writing in the horn trio is kind of similar, I think, to this variation and its emphasis on the kind of horn writing that he uses here.


John Banther: You can also hear, I think, a good characteristic of Brahms, and that is using arpeggios outlining a chord. It's a little more hidden in this sense, but he does it. He does these arpeggios over wide ranges, over two octaves at times, really cascading down from the top or going up from the bottom. Again, that's something you hear in his other orchestra works.


Evan Keely: ... Yeah, this is wide range, but it's spelling out the chord very clearly, and you really know where you are harmonically in those moments.


John Banther: Yes. That brings us to the seventh variation. I think this might be both of our favorites.


Evan Keely: Yeah. Well, the sixth variation is a real crowd pleaser. I love that. But I get to this variation, it's just so, what can you say? It's so Brahms.


John Banther: Yes.


Evan Keely: No one, but Brahms could have written this variation in particular. And it's so beautiful and beguiling. The theme is further away. Somehow it's harder and harder to recognize that the theme is still present, but of course it is, and it's just so very beautiful. Gracioso is the direction that he writes to the score, gracious.


John Banther: And in the 2 Piano version, there are grace notes at the beginning of these phrases, especially at the beginning of the piece, but those were removed for the orchestral version.


Evan Keely: Yeah, I really wonder, there's not a lot of changes from the two pianos version to the orchestral version, but that's a very conspicuous one, and I really wonder why Brahms did that... in the piano version, and then it's gone from the orchestral version, just comes in right on the downbeat without the grace notes. Interesting change. It's subtle but significant, nevertheless.


John Banther: I think a reason might be, at least in my experience or opinion, is that it's harder to write grace notes at the beginning of a phrase, especially here, we're talking about the beginning of a movement when you have multiple people playing together, and especially at this tempo. Maybe he kept it for the piano version because the lack of timbre and contrast with just the 2 Pianos. And here we have all the wins and strings to do things with. And it's kind of hard... Yeah, it's hard to start together like that when you're conducting something to bring everyone in. There is one piece that I know of that starts with a grace note in a whole section of instruments, and that is Carl Nielsen's fourth symphony. Totally unrelated, but that's the only one I can think of that I've ever played or heard, where there's grace notes at the beginning like that for an orchestra. So it's interesting. We don't know exactly why he did it. That's kind of my guess.


Evan Keely: It is more difficult to play if you have grace notes at the beginning of a multi instrumental phrase. But then again, Brahms was never terribly worried about composing music that was too hard to play.


John Banther: No, a really wonderful movement. And it brings us to the eighth variation here.


Evan Keely: This is the third of the minor mode variations, and I might argue this is the most Beethovenian of the variations or maybe the Schumann Fantasy Variations that Brahms knew so well in the way that the original theme almost completely disappears. It's so transformed that it's really hard to hear how this variation relates to the original theme. It's almost more like a Schumannesque fantasy variation, and yet the theme is still very much present. It's still a very strict variation on that theme, even though to a casual ear, it's harder to hear it.


John Banther: This one is also rather short, and I think it's an example of the great overall rhythm that Brahms has. It feels like with this variation number eight, we've gone on a hike, Evan, and now we've reached this beautiful view. It's so transformed from the trees and bushes or whatever we saw at the trailhead, we had this grand thing, now it's time to turn around and go back home. And by having this one... Being on the shorter side, being more diffused with the theme, as you said, it gives him the opportunity in the next movement in the finale to really bring us home with that tune that we're expecting maybe more so in this movement. And he brings it back in the finale for really one of the greatest kind of grandiose, rich endings of a work in the orchestral repertoire that I've experienced. I just love it.


Evan Keely: Well, and as you were saying there's this momentum toward that finale, and this is the only variation of the whole set where there's only one repeat. So there are two repeat signs in the theme, and you see that in variations one and two, and then you see it again later on. But in this variation, just the second repeat sign is the only one that's preserved, and that kind of gives it a certain drive to hear that last phrase repeated exactly. Right before we get to the finale, there's this kind of this sense of maybe sacrificing length for obscurity, which it just piques your curiosity, but it keeps that momentum going into the finale.


John Banther: Yes. And the finale itself is a set of variations. I think it's 15 in total each, as we've said, five measures long. And Brahms comment earlier on the baseline keeping it intact, I think that becomes clear as day with this movement because this takes the form of what we call a passacaglia. So what is a passacaglia? It's a form really made for theme and variations. It requires one thing, a repeating bassline, often called a ground bass. And this repeating bassline provides a consistent foundation for endless variations over top, which are, as we've already said, five measures long. The passacaglia got its start centuries earlier in Spain, but it was still used like this in the 1800s, even in the 20th century, it's been used because it's such a great, well, form for theme and variations, because you have that repeating bassline. You know what it's going to be. It sets up the core progression. It sets up the rhythm and momentum to just give total freedom over top.


Evan Keely: Johann Sebastian Bach, C minor passacaglia organ piece is a very famous example. I'm sure Brahms knew that one well.


John Banther: Oh, yeah.


Evan Keely: And of course, Brahms himself used a passacaglia in the finale of his fourth symphony. I'm not sure if it's 15 variations or what the exact number is. You have the first section of the finale. You have 13 times with this base repeated over and over again, and then in the next section you hear it three more times, but at this time it's in the minor key. So there's that sort of dark quality there. And then we move into the final section where there's... We go back into the major, we hear the melodic and harmonic contours of the theme very clearly, and there's this note of triumph with which the piece ends.


John Banther: I think the third section is so triumphant. Because of how he treats that second section you were just talking about, the ground bass at repeating bassline, it shifts. It's no longer in the bass. There are silent, and it goes to pizzicato cello. It lets the bottom drop out in the sound without that low end. And that contrast leads to that triumphant sound. I think in the third section, which he knows he can just make this as grand and rich as possible because this point, it's deserved in the music and his use of percussion too. He is such a reserved character when it comes to percussion. Now, he's got the triangle. I think this might be one of the best moments for triangle in an orchestra piece.


Evan Keely: It's so easy to overuse that sound or to just have it be a kind of cliché. And Brahms is so judicious, as you said, in his use of percussion in general. And an instrument like the triangle in particular, which you don't see often in Brahms. In fact, it's hard for me to think of another piece that has one. But it's so effective here because he is held it back all that time, and then toward the very end, it's just this wonderful little added touch that gives a wonderful color to the whole sonic palette.


John Banther: Especially since his orchestration in general, a lot of it's very rich and very dark, and in this brilliance of the triangle, it brings it home. But we did mention before that Brahms actually does quote a piece by Haydn in this work, and that's right towards the end where he borrows a moment from Haydn's Symphony number 101, the Clock Symphony. Listen to this moment here in Haydn's Clock Symphony. Now, we can hear how Brahms use that same line. It's so perfect. I don't know what he would write in place of that. It's like this line was made for it, but he borrowed it from the Clock Symphony. It fits perfectly


Evan Keely: Well, he had a great respect for Haydn, as well he should have. And even though we now know Haydn did not compose the theme, it's not particularly ridiculous to suggest that the theme does have a kind of Haydnisc quality.


John Banther: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, it's just a fantastic work. I love it from beginning to end. It's nice that it's on the shorter side. This isn't a half hour, 45 minutes or longer thing. You can listen to this, I don't know, driving to the grocery store or taking the bus somewhere. It just kind of fits well, and it keeps everything interesting. And today, it's so hard to think, Brahms did not ride a whole lot for the orchestra. Did he? We've considered him so emblematic of romantic orchestral music, his symphonies and this work as well, and a few others, but there's not much more.


Evan Keely: The orchestral music that he did write is so much a part of the basic repertoire that we think of him as an orchestral composer, but the quantity of music that he composed for just orchestra is actually quite small. There's a number of works that have an orchestra in them. There's the Four Concertos, the 2 Piano Concertos, the Violin Concerto, the Double Concerto. He wrote a lot of chorale orchestral works, the German Requiem, obviously. There's a lot of shorter ones like the Alto Rhapsody, the Gesang der Parzen, the Triumphlied and so forth. But there's not a lot of pieces that are just for orchestra. There's the two serenades. Of course, he wrote the four symphonies. There are the two concert overtures, the academic festival and the tragic overture, and then there's this set of variations, and that's it. That is his whole body of works that are just for orchestra alone. It's really fascinating that he really reserved his creativity for such a small number of works in that genre.


John Banther: Well, that's all I have for Brahms Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Evan, do you have anything else?


Evan Keely: Just another wonderful example of Brahms' endless inventiveness. He creates these very strict boundaries and the structures in which he's creating something, and yet through that, he's able to create something which has such a feeling of spontaneity and joy and wonder within those very strict confines. And that's a very definite characteristic of Brahms, I would say.


John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. If you have any comments or episode ideas, send me an email at classicalbreakdown@weta. org. And if you enjoy this episode, leave a five- star review on your podcast app and tell a friend. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.