Listening to Beethoven #40 – 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

13 Variations on Dittersdorf’s air ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’ for piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′


What’s the theme like?

Dittersdorf’s theme is taken from an opera, Das rothe Käppchen. In profile it is similar to the Swiss song on which Beethoven wrote six simple variations, not long before completing this work.

Background and Critical Reception

Having been rather dismissive of the entertaining Waldstein variatioms, booklet writer Jean-Charles Hoffelé is more forthcoming on their successor. They ‘make the most of the popular ballad from the opera Das rothe Käppchen. The dominant-tonic interval is exploited to the full to create a tension that is resolved only in the final march’.

Barry Cooper, writing in the notes for the DG Complete Beethoven Edition, gets to the nub of Beethoven’s wit. ‘The most striking effect is the sudden and prolonged rest in the middle of the theme. Beethoven exploits the humourous effect of this rest by creating witty surprises after it in almost every variation, so that the flow of the music is not merely interrupted by the rest but is diverted from its previous course by what follows. In the final variation, a march, there is once again a witty surprise after the rest – for the first time the music just carries on as if nothing had happened. The joke is that there is no joke!


On first hearing it’s tempting to think the pianist has made a mistake when playing this theme. This is the ‘prolonged rest’ that Barry Cooper talks about, and once you know it’s there the ear listens out for it in each variation.

If it was ever played in public this trick could potentially have brought the house down, and when listening it certainly raises a smile – especially as Beethoven’s approaches to this bit of silence are so wildly varied. Silence, of course, would become a key element of Beethoven’s style as it progressed, and this is the first explicit example of it used prominently in a theme.

The variations sparkle, Beethoven again showing off what he can do with busy figurations for the right hand especially. The minor key variation (the sixth) is unexpectedly dark after the major key brilliance – while the ninth alternates between both moods, a flurry of notes suddenly coming to a sombre pause when Beethoven’s trick once again reveals itself.

Once again Beethoven turns entertainer, and in this case prankster – but beneath the notes he is continuing to explore different techniques and ever-more demanding writing for the piano. As a result there is much of note to find in this piece.

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), John Ogdon (EMI/Warner Classics), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

A fascinating and varied trio of versions here. Ousset has a winning elegance from the start, but fully embraces Beethoven’s invention and instinct as the variations progress. John Ogdon brings a mischievous element right from the start, with some appealing, jaunty phrasing, while Brautigam gives a charismatic account. Three excellent versions that complement each other.

Spotify links

Cécile Ousset

John Ogdon

track 34 onwards on this album:

Ronald Brautigam

Also written in 1792 Hummel Piano Trio no.1 in E flat major Op.12

Next up Prüfung des Küssens

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