Listening to Beethoven #39 – 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein


Count Waldstein (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven aged approximately 25.

8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein WoO 67 for piano duet (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known, but presumed to be Count Waldstein
Duration 8′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme sounds quite quaint and a little rickety on the fortepiano. Its alternations between major and minor harmonies give it a bittersweet flavour.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another piece from Beethoven’s last days in Bonn that was not published in his lifetime – and another that has almost completely bypassed the writings of the composer’s scholars. Keith Anderson, writing booklet notes for the engaging release of Beethoven’s music for piano duet on Grand Piano Records, notes the piece was picked up by the publisher Nikolaus Simrock, but without initial consultation with the composer himself.

By now Beethoven was using the ‘theme and variations’ format as a way of flexing his muscles as a composer, trying out new and – in some cases – ever more daring feats. No doubt when making music with friends he got acquainted with the idea of piano duets – Mozart especially had written a number of pieces for the format – and this was his first, quite extravagant work for four hands.

Waldstein is recorded on Wikipedia as a ‘fairly good pianist and composer’ – so it is tempting to think Beethoven wrote the second part with him in mind. Certainly some of the prompting is easier for the second pianist, as the first part goes wild at the top end of the keyboard!

Thoughts

Beethoven has some fun with these variations, which seem to have been designed for lighthearted performance among friends. Certainly if the fourth variation is anything to go by, with its detached swoops from high down to low and back again. The second and fifth have a torrent of notes in the right hand, while the sixth is also pretty outrageous, an outgoing display piece. The seventh is po-faced, with a syncopation here and there disrupting the rhythms enjoyably, while the eighth variation switches to C minor, rich in harmonic flavour.

Then there is a really pronounced pause, Beethoven looking round at his audience with a tease or two – before a sizeable coda which could really be called a Fantasia. Where will the music go? Beethoven starts to go off at a number of tangents, recalling the unpredictable methods of C.P.E. Bach. The speeds vary wildly, as do the moods – and just as the direction seems uncertain, we head back to the main key through a series of heavy chords. Beethoven refuses to finish with a flourish though, a soft chord all he needs to bring the house down.

Ultimately this piece has a lot of signposts for the watching public, and they surely would have loved it in private performance – if indeed it got to see the light of day. It is a good deal of fun.

Recordings used

Amy & Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Arthur & Lucas Jussen (Deutsche Grammophon)

This piece is a riot in the hands of the Hamann sisters, who appreciate the rougher edges the fortepiano provides. They use this to their advantage, bringing out the contrasts between the variations. Their album of piano duets presents the pieces first on the fortepiano, and then on a modern Yamaha, giving the listener a great chance to compare and contrast. The modern version is cleaner and less ‘on the edge’, but still very entertaining.

Alongside this pair the Jussen brothers sound rather more chaste, though they too have some fun once the variations are into their stride.

Spotify links

Amy & Sara Hamann (Fortepiano after J.A. Stein, 1784)

Amy & Sara Hamann (modern Yamaha)

Arthur & Lucas Jussen

Also written in 1792 Gelinek 6 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen

Next up 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’

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