Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Opus 56
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Johannes Brahms was a masterful, though somewhat conservative composer, not known for breaking new ground. Richard Wagner, Brahms’ contemporary and rival in the eyes of some, upon hearing the Handel Variations, Op. 24, remarked: “One sees what may still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.” Yet this piece, his variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn, does break some new ground, as it is the first set of standalone symphonic variations to join the standard repertoire.
The theme for the variations, a “Chorale St. Antoni” ostensibly by Haydn, was shown to Brahms by a friend in 1870, and Brahms copied it down for later use. In the summer of 1873, Brahms set about casting the theme and variations as a work for two pianos; the orchestral version would come later. The piano version would be his last large-scale piano composition, and the orchestral version his first purely orchestral work in more than a decade. The orchestral version served as a final training ground for his first symphony.
The theme statement is scored in a fashion reminiscent of Haydn’s work in the early Classical period. The tune is stated by the woody-sounding double reeds accompanied by the lower strings. Eight masterful variations ensue, followed by a finale in the form of a passacaglia, itself a set of variations on a theme used as a repeating bass line. The piece comes to a triumphant end, and Brahms sneaks in a quote from Haydn’s “Clock” symphony as it does.
Requiem in D Minor, K626
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart needs little introduction. He was a child prodigy with piano, violin, and quill pen, and his father showed him off to the nobility of Europe. He wrote great operas, symphonies, chamber music, and performed his own piano concertos. The play and movie Amadeus tell a sensational tale of the end of Mozart’s all-too-brief life. Mysterious visitors commissioning Mozart to write a Requiem Mass, illness and portents of his own imminent demise, and a frenzied attempt to finish the commission, only to fall short. Some of it is even true!
Mozart did receive a visitor in July of 1791, seeking to commission a Requiem Mass on behalf of an unnamed patron. The man who wanted the work was Count Walsegg, a wealthy young nobleman whose wife had died that spring. Walsegg was an amateur musician who enjoyed commissioning works by others which he would copy and pass off as his own. He planned to do the same with a Requiem by Mozart, having it performed annually in honor of his deceased wife. Mozart, with extensive debts, was in no position to refuse the offer.
Mozart was quite busy in the summer and fall of 1791, working on the opera La clemenza di Tito for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, the opera The Magic Flute for its premiere in Vienna, a clarinet concerto for his friend Anton Stadler, and a cantata for his Masonic brethren, in addition to the Requiem. Mozart had earlier written a Mass (in C minor, K. 427) which remained incomplete at his death, and the Requiem would be no different. Vienna was swept by “fevers” that fall, and Mozart fell ill in late November. Barbaric treatment (bleeding) hastened his demise. But through his illness, and before, Mozart worked to establish the skeleton of his Requiem. In the end, he left us the essentially complete Requiem and Kyrie movements, but the Dies Irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae, Recordare, Lacrimosa, Domine Jesu, and Hostias movements contained only the vocal parts and fragments of the instrumental parts. And from the Sanctus to the end, not even the vocal parts were done.
The incomplete Requiem posed a large problem for Mozart’s widow, facing the family’s large debts and lack of income. She immediately set about trying to “complete” the in such a way that she could provide it to the mysterious commissioner and collect the rest of the commission, and in the future, sell it as a completed work by Mozart. A pupil named Freystädtler finished the Kyrie orchestration. Joseph Eybler, another pupil, took up the task of finishing the rest, but quickly withdrew. Finally Franz Süssmay, another pupil and friend of Mozart’s who had helped with other projects in 1791, took up the job of orchestrating the existing music and composing the missing parts. He copied Mozart’s score and added his own contributions, then he or Constanze forged Mozart’s signature before the work was delivered to the unwitting Walsegg for the final payment.
The conductor Erich Leinsdorf wrote: “In the Requiem we possess a fragment which would collect dust on shelves, were it not for the editors who attempted completion. The fragment itself is one of music’s milestones, of which there are few, even from the quills of our greatest masters. Thus, we try to climb a peak, from which performers and listeners alike should be near the galaxy and aware of last things.”
– Bill Palmer