A Short Foray into Beethoven’s Variations

Guest post by Dr. Dominik Rahmer, editor at G. Henle Verlag.

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The formal technique of “variations” played an important role in Beethoven’s work throughout his entire life. Critic Paul Bekker wrote in 1911, “Beethoven begins with variations,” and indeed this is true not only of the character of his oeuvre, but also of its chronological progression: Beethoven’s very first published work was his 9 Variations on a March by Dressler, WoO 63, which appeared in 1782.

DresslerTheme

Dressler Variations, WoO 63: Beginning of the Theme

Similarly, we could add that Beethoven also ends with variations. The Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, which are amongst his last piano works, not only crown his creativity, but also, in the history of piano variations, are probably equaled only by Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The panoply of variations within his multi-movement works also indicates how fundamental this technique is in Beethoven’s musical thinking. Consider, for example, the profound closing movement of the last piano sonata, Op. 111, or the grand finale of the 3rd Symphony.

Though the themes of these movements were usually Beethoven’s own inventions, here we will focus on the pieces composed as independent variation sets on popular melodies. This vantage point reveals some interesting finds.

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Countess Josephine von Clary-Aldringen (1777-1828)

It lets us see, for example, that Beethoven composed variations for the mandolin. In 1796 Beethoven composed his Andante with 6 Variations, WoO 44b, together with other short pieces for mandolin and piano, for the Countess Josephine von Clary-Aldringen, who played the instrument. Incidentally, these variations can also be played unmodified on the violin, thereby constituting an ideal (and easier) addition to Beethoven’s only “real” variations for the violin, the 12 Variations for Violin on “Se vuol ballare” by Mozart, WoO 40.

The vast majority of Beethoven’s variations were, however, written for piano solo, which was an ideal vehicle for Beethoven, one of the greatest piano virtuosos of his time, to present his own pianistic and compositional skills to audiences. His 24 Variations on “Venni Amore” by Vincenzio Righini, WoO 65, require so much technical skill that when he visited the renowned pianist Franz Xaver Sterkel in 1791, Sterkel declared these variations too difficult. In response, Beethoven not only performed his complete composition at the piano from memory, but, to the astonishment of the listeners, also virtuosically improvised further variations on the theme.

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Variations on “Venni Amore,” WoO 65: Beginning of the 9th Variation

Amongst the more pianistically demanding works of this kind are the 7 Variations on “Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen,” WoO 75, a canzonetta from an opera by the now almost entirely forgotten composer Peter von Winter. The opening of the text could be reminiscent of a kind of lullaby, though not at all suited to the coquettish melody in 2/4 time.

WinterTheme

Variations on “Kind, willst du ruhig schlafen,” WoO 75

And, in fact, it’s actually a facetious song by three girls wanting to talk a friend out of her heartache:

Child! If you’d easily sleep,
Follow my custom,
And flirt, just as with monkeys,
Also with the men:
Tease and taunt them.

Don’t let them steal your heart!
This is not clever.
False are the souls of men,
Treach’rous, full of scams:
Nobody’s good for anything.
[…]

The German libretto of this “heroic-comic” opera, which takes place in the Peruvian Inca period, can be found here in the Bavarian State Library digital collections.

Among Beethoven’s collection of variations is also a shorter piece for piano trio, Variations in E-Flat Major, Op. 44, which stands as an alternative to the more widely known 10 Variations on “Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu,” Op. 121a. The former is based on “Ja, ich muss mich von ihr scheiden,” a jealous husband’s irate aria from Dittersdorf’s misleadingly titled opera, Das Rote Käppchen (Little Red Cap). This opera has nothing to do with the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, but instead is a marriage farce about a young woman suffering from her elderly husband’s morbid jealousy, curing him of it with a trick: an allegedly miraculous red cap.

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Count Ferdinand Ernst von Waldstein (1762-1823)

Another lesser-known piece among this collection of variations is the 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein, WoO 67, named for Count Ferdinand Ernst von Waldstein, to whom the famous “Waldstein” Sonata (Sonata No. 21 in C Major, Op. 53), was dedicated. Waldstein was Beethoven’s first important patron in Bonn and sponsored the young composer’s trip to Vienna in 1792, but he also played the piano well and even personally contributed the theme (possibly improved upon by Beethoven) for this set of variations.

The 6 National Airs with Variations, Op. 105, and 10 National Airs with Variations, Op. 107, both based on catchy folk melodies, also offer a treasure trove of pretty variations that are often overlooked. Though the pieces require an accomplished piano player, the flute part, which can also be performed on the violin, is deliberately kept simple and could very well be mastered even by younger students. Moreover, since Beethoven’s flute part was added only ad libitum at the request of the person commissioning them, these variations can also be performed as piano solos — an ideal short, smart encore for a Beethoven piano recital.

Even after 250 years of Beethoven, there is still so much to discover in his oeuvre!

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