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
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