Hans Erich Apostel’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn
Notes by TŌN flutist Jordan Arbus
The Composer and His Viennese Background
The name of Hans Erich Apostel might not be very evocative for most people. In fact, he can be considered a pretty obscure composer nowadays due to his works having been very rarely performed. During his lifetime, though, he was a well-regarded, thorough musician, being a pianist, a conductor, and winning several prizes for his compositions. Apostel spent most of his life in Vienna, including during the WWII period when his music was considered degenerate by the Nazis. He was able to study with several well-established names such as Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, both members of the Second Viennese School. He was, for some time, the director of the Austrian branch of Gesellschaft für Neue Musik (Society for New Music), and these variations were originally written for the 50th anniversary of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1949. This orchestra was known for performing new music and had been subject to a famous incident on the evening of March 31, 1913: The audience went into a violent riot while Schoenberg was conducting performances of his own works along with Webern’s and Berg’s.
These variations by Apostel are based on the first theme of the Andante from the Symphony No. 103 by Joseph Haydn, a member of the First Viennese School along with Mozart and Beethoven. Apostel made the choice to use this theme almost entirely unaltered when first presented, making minimal to no change to Haydn’s orchestration. This contrast between a classical era theme and variations from a twentieth century aesthetic gives this piece a very peculiar aspect. It is interesting to follow the theme as it progresses and changes from variation to variation, as it is very clearly recognizable in certain parts, while being complex and well hidden in others. Moreover, Apostel uses sophisticated devices such as mirror structure of the cycle (when the time signatures of the first half are reflected in the second one) that makes it impossible for non-expert ears to get a full glance of what is going on without looking at the score. Schoenberg claimed that his music speaks to everyone, but that only a few could comprehend its structure. This claim would certainly apply to these variations.
Theme and Variations
The genre of Theme and Variations is one of the greatest traditions in classical music. The works that come to mind immediately when thinking about orchestral variations might undoubtedly be the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Rachmaninoff or even Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Writing variations on an existing theme is often a way for composers to reconnect with the past and pay homage to their illustrious predecessors, all the while setting themselves up as part of history among the great ones. And that is absolutely the case for these variations, which connect the First and Second Viennese Schools.