Because he is so different than other composers of his era, Johannes Brahms is a difficult composer to classify. He is certainly a Romantic - expanding beyond the formal limitations that the Classical Era (Mozart being the chief practitioner) placed upon composition. But he is also very much rooted in a classical - perhaps even a baroque, at times - sensibility. Despite the wild harmonic (Wagner) and melodic (Chopin) inventions of his contemporaries, Brahms remains stuck somewhere in between. His music is a testament to the kind of melody and harmony, to be sure, that encompasses the newer, "dissonant" forms that characterize the Romantic Era, but it is also reflective and moving, subdued and inoffensive.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Romantic music is not the way that harmony, melody, or even presentation changed. Rather, the Romantics - beginning with Beethoven - were emotional, charged, urgent. Their music was not meant to be beautiful above all, or divine. It was human, and painful, and moving. Chopin is perhaps the epitome of this; his music so often strikes us as sad unto utter depression. But the Romantics compose with the same Joy that signaled - in Beethoven's 9th - the end of an era. Perhaps that joy is present, too, in Mozart and Bach and their contemporaries, but it is not the point in the way that it is with the Romantics.*
*Ok, ok, we'll do the Jupiter Symphony at some point, and the Bradenburg Concerti, and blow that sentence out of the water, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.
What sets Brahms apart from the other Romantics is not that joyful sensibility, or the subtlety with which his melodies move through the harmonic aether so prominent in his time. No, Brahms is different because, while doing all of those things, he nearly convinces us that he's not really doing them at all. His music feels older, more structured than it is. His Variations on a Theme by Haydn feel almost as if they could have been written by Haydn himself, until you listen more closely, and you realize that it would have been impossible for Haydn to be so bold, so daring, so offensive.
I suppose what I'm saying is that Brahms is a paradox. He is the least offensive and least intense of Romantic composers, but only because he is so good at being offensive and intense. In the Variations it's all too easy to forget where you started, and where you've gone, and to realize how strong a grip Brahms has gotten on your soul using only the bare scaffold provided by some old master - Haydn - who never could have imagined such power. Trying to explain how that happens is probably impossible, but I want to walk through the piece anyway, to try to understand the subtle motions a little better.
There are a couple versions on youtube that are passable, but I'd recommend a CD if you can find one. I'll link to the movements from one of those youtube versions as I talk about them. Unfortunately, a few of the movements I'm linking to here cut off early.
The opening of the piece is a fairly straightforward statement of Haydn's theme. It's a pleasant enough starting point, with an unintimidating chord progression and a simple structure. While hardly an amazing starting point, it is more than adequate. In many ways it conforms perfectly to what we might call the Classical Composer's Handbook: open with a theme that is not too complicated or emotional, because then you won't have anywhere to go. This is a theme with plenty of potential - if only because the chords are so, well, basic - and so Brahms can reasonably play with it in any number of ways.
Brahms wastes no time in taking off. While his first variation retains both the harmony of the initial movement and many of the melodic and contrapuntal devices, it also changes the attitude substantially. The backdrop of quarter notes played by various wind instruments gives the variation an urgentness not present in the theme itself. There is also a hint of dissonance from time to time - though hardly enough to disturb or surprise us - that Brahms mixes in with the rapid, flighty counterpoint that highlights the variation. This variation, in itself, is not so different from Haydn, and could possibly be something Haydn himself would write if he was feeling antsy enough.
The urgency of the first variation leads us into this, an all together more intense variation than either of the first two. Brahms particularly emphasizes the dominant chords when they appear (setting us on edge, because of the need for resolution this creates). The tempo has been picked up once again, a technique that further sets us on edge. While chords - more than melody - are an emphasis of the theme itself (fitting for a classical theme, indeed), this variation is even more chordal than the opening. Melody is used primarily to bridge the gap between one forte expression of a chord (usually dominant) to another, further increasing the urgency of the variation.
At about half the tempo as the second variation, this variation is a return to a melodic and more sensual music. The presence of sixteenth notes in the counterpoint - forming arpeggios - in the early part of the movement prevents the variation from feeling properly "slow," but there remains a sense of relaxation that we didn't have in the previous variations. It as if we were rushing to get here, and now we are content. Only, there is something unsettled about this place we have arrived, and the variation - at least to my ear - feels less and less satisfying as a resting place as it moves along. Perhaps this is because those sixteenth notes become more and more prominent, or perhaps it's because of the instrumentation or the harmony. It's hard for me to say, but I am decidedly ready to move on by the end of the movement.
This is the first movement to make the move to a melancholic minor, and it is decidedly romantic. While the harmony remains fundamentally similar to what it has been, there are few traces of the original theme in the melody, with the emphasis being on a desirous, longing melodic construction that leads us, invariably, to dominant chords with weak resolutions. That those resolutions are minor is further unsettling, not because minor keys cannot be tonics, but because the original theme - the context we're hearing this in - is so major. Where did this melancholy come from?
In stark contrast to the preceding variation, this one is the fastest yet, and returns to a major key. That said, it is far from jubilant. While there are certainly bright passages, it also has sinister moments. On the whole, though it is a kind of frantic search for where to go next, since we have been thwarted in our search for resolution in the previous few movements. This is a hopeful variation, no doubt, but it is also far from a resting point itself.
Where the fifth variation leads us is a more plodding, and wholey more satisfying and playful sixth variation. The forte chords that invade about a third of the way through are not sinister, even though they are minor. They give the sense that something momentous is about to happen, that we're getting somewhere, at last. We undoubtedly have to push further - just a little bit - but we're on the cusp. If we choose to look, back, too, we see how incredibly far we have come from the opening. This movement is pure romantic era; mixing in chords based on sentiment rather than harmonic theory, and emphasizing a galumphing, rhythmic melody that serves a distinctly cheerful emotional purpose.
This variation is not where we're going; it feels more reflective than the movements before it. Brahms dulls the edges of some of the particular places in the harmony that he has heretofore emphasized, taking the volume down and exploring a more romantic (in both senses, this time) direction. This variation strikes me as a kind of swooning, a "so there" to the haughty and academic sound of the opening theme. It turns out the same harmonic framework can lead to romance and desire and fields of poppies (if you will), just as well as it can more formal concerns of orchestra, progression, and composition. Here we have music starting to extract itself from theory, becoming music as it truly is.
With something of a chuckle, Brahms leads us back into a more sinister melody. We are absorbed, thanks largely to the seduction of the previous movement, in the emotion of the music. And here we are not disappointed, though perhaps a little surprised, to find that something clever and dramatic is afoot. We feel close to the end, now, because the searching of the previous movements is no longer present. Rather, we are here, but Brahms has not yet shown us what the hullabaloo is about.* Instead he's poking fun, a little, and giving us a little more buildup to better set off his fireworks.
*Of course, the circular journey of the piece is really what the hullabaloo is about, but that's kind of the point. There's nowhere to stop in the whole piece, except for the end (which we're getting to), but the end wouldn't stand on its own either. While I might argue that most pieces cannot be taken apart (shame on you to classical stations that only play single movements of symphonies), there is no way you would even consider doing so to this piece. No single bit of it is particularly brilliant alone - though all are certainly excellent - but the whole, as a whole, is incredible.
Final Variation (Return of Theme)
From the outset we can tell that the original theme is back, but in a non-distinct way. We are, truly, hearing a Romantic version of what was a Classical notion at the opening. It is a music triumph and a celebration folded into a simple recapitulation. Brahms revels in the drama of the opening of this movement because he knows where it is going, but also because it shows the continuity of music so well. The history of music folds always into its present, and a great composer is always indebted to the harmonies and melodies that came before. We may prefer a particular era - and history seems to prefer the romantic era - but that's silly. Great music is great music, if only you can unlock it's potential.
Brahms, in this final variation - if it is a variation - somehow manages to let Haydn rewrite his own theme. There is no lording over an age gone past, an age insufficiently aware of what music is capable of. Rather, this piece is a reminder that those predecessors feed into the power of more contemporary music, and that music is, ultimately, more a dialogue than a speech. Perhaps not all composers feel that way, and not all music is capable of conversation, but Brahms straddles so many theories of music and composition that he cannot help but be a conduit for conversation between seemingly disparate methods.
Brahms is the most classical of the composers of his time, to be sure, but he is also the most modern. Perhaps Brahms is simply more musical than his contemporaries. There are many excellent composers from the late romantic era, each with their own emotional and spiritual mission (or baggage). Brahms is not separate from that, but he is somehow above it. We may listen to him today and find his music too similar to what we now here in movies, but that is no accident. Movie composers copied Brahms because his was the most relevant music, the easiest to connect to, the least dependent upon understanding theory and history. His is a timeless music, dramatic, beautiful, and human.
It is worth noting that, while I was talking about the orchestral version of this piece, there is also an excellent version for two pianos (also by Brahms; it's not a reduction made by someone else). The piece takes on some different characteristics when played on piano, of course, and he expertly plays the two instruments against each other (letting one take the melody for a time and switching). Perhaps even more than the orchestral version, the piano version is truly a dialogue.