“Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” theme originally composed by… not Haydn.
This week on the dead old white guy show, we have a series of pieces written as variations on a theme originally composed by… someone. The original attribution for the theme, found in a piece written for wind ensemble and titled “St. Anthony Chorale,” was attributed to none other than Franz Joseph Haydn, the known father of the modern symphonic form. Johannes Brahms, the German composer who greatly resembled a walrus, titled his series of variations accordingly. Despite this, musicologists have discovered that it was likely an unknown composer who wrote the original theme. Music publishers in the 19th century had a very nasty habit of publishing works and attributing them to already famous composers as a way of increasing the sales of that music. This happened a lot to women composers, which is disappointing and detrimental to musicology. Thanks, greedy dudes. You suck.
Brahms wrote the variations for two pianos, but everyone hated that version because it was boring and sucked; he then wrote it for orchestra, which is much better and actually gets performed from time to time. It premiered in 1873 and directed by Brahms himself in all his walrus-y glory. Brahms was a man who did not rock the boat (though he likely DID rock Clara Schumann’s world when they, allegedly, had an affair, even though her husband, Robert, was Brahms’ mentor and promoter). His music has lush harmonies and soaring melodies, but nothing too atonal or avante garde even though his contemporaries were writing some seriously intense music. Brahms was the old, they were the new.
In the final movement of the piece, Brahms quotes a piece of music that Haydn DID write; it is a brief section from Haydn’s Clock Symphony. That tiny fragment of music is likely the only real reference to Haydn in an 18 minute long chunk of variations bearing his name.
Ah, the privilege of being an old white guy — having work attributed to you that you literally had nothing to do with.
I guess some things never change.