Today, let’s do classical music, as in a great big splodge of orchestral goo by a dead German. Brahms op. 56a and 56b is a set of variations on a theme; he thought the theme was Haydn’s, thus called it Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn. But now they think the Haydn attribution on the theme is sketchy, so now you’ll see ’em labeled sometimes as the Saint Anthony Variations. Anyhow, this is a super tasty splodge of goo, the kind of thing orchestras exist to play.

Brahms in 1872

Brahms, the year before the Variations were published.

Brahms’ early career was up and down; he was in his late thirties before he got much traction. Also, everyone knew that if you wanted to be a big composer you had to write big symphonies. So Brahms premiered the Variations when he was 40 and his Symphony #1 three years later; both were major hits. I’ve heard the Variations described as a warm-up work for the Symphony; that seems unlikely since the latter had been under construction for a decade. I wonder if maybe Brahms had a little bit of imposter syndrome, which would be easy if you were trying to be the first really big German composer after Beethoven, and needed to convince himself he could write something big and orchestral that audiences would like. If you want more on this music, I’ve written about both pieces before.

Anyhow, this music is super-easy to understand; the Saint-Anthony theme is nice and simple, and Brahms doesn’t take any of the variations very far off the beaten track. But he keeps adding thicker and thicker layers of orchestral color and volume, and nobody was ever better than Brahms at that. Every moment of this is a treat for the ears.

Now… it’s kind of long for a Song of the Day, 18 minutes or so. Don’t have that much time for music today? Maybe re-examine your priorities. But, OK, try listening to the first two minutes or so to get comfy with the Saint-Anthony theme, then skip ahead and take in the last 4:15-ish to hear Brahms bring it home with a bang.

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links · Spotify playlist. This is easy music to buy; usually it’s packaged on a disc with the Symphony #1. I have, and like, both the Roger Norrington and Dorati/LSO versions (and both have fabulous sound). The Dorati (full album) on iTunes and Amazon. As for Spotify, hmm… Brahms Haydn variations has lots of results; adding Dorati yields a link to some “relaxing classical music” compilation. Anyhow, maybe start here.

As for live video, Duhamel/Berlin has a gentle, mellow sound, while Muti/Philadelphia lets the violins sing out a bit more. Brahms also wrote a less-popular two-piano version, here are Lupu & Perahia (no video).


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February 14, 2018
· Arts (11 fragments)
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· Song of the Day (172 more)

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