Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

12 Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ WoO40 for piano and violin (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Elenore von Breuning
Duration 12’30”

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Mozart’s theme is from the first act of Le nozze de Figaro – Se vuol ballare being an aria for Figaro himself, on discovering the count’s schemes.

Background and Critical Reception

‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

Beethoven’s statement, made in a letter in 1794, confirms he was now in Vienna – and already attracting great interest. In the covering note with the piece, he also makes reference to the extra prominence for the violin in the work – now seen alongside the piano. ‘The variations will be rather difficult to play, and particularly the trills in the coda. But this must not intimidate or discourage you. For the composition is so arranged that you need only play the trill and can leave out the other notes, since these appear in the violin part as well.’

Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, suggests Beethoven included these features in his work to embarrass the pianists who tried to play his music, giving them music of extra difficulty.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s statement of the theme is unusual, choosing to announce the tune through pizzicato violin with the softest of piano accompaniments. In this way he imitates a guitar, mirroring the way the tune is first heard in the opera.

As the variations unfold the piano takes the lead, particularly in a thrilling fourth variation which has the mood of a Bach sonata with its bubbling counterpoint, passed back and forward between the instruments. The fifth variation enjoys subtle humour with the figure of a trill exchanged, but then the mood darkens.

The sixth variation moves to the minor key, and the violin plays a mournful melody as the piano adopts a slow, bell-like toll. The roles are reversed for the seventh variation, the music still in the minor key but with a few longer dissonances. Soon the sun returns, the music flowing forward through variations eight and nine, the latter generating terrific energy in its fast moving writing for piano alone, the violin taking a brief rest.

The final variations find the instruments close together, the music flowing and in affirmative mood, but then in the coda Beethoven unexpectedly moves into a new key (D major), which takes the listener by surprise and opens up the music completely. This is however shortlived, the false ‘departure’ quickly coming home to rest with a rather touching finish led by soft trills on the piano.

Beethoven’s first Viennese work is a strong statement, and a very enjoyable one at that. Anyone wishing to capture his music on paper would have had a hard time, for his music is starting to show invention and imagination at every turn.

Recordings used

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Takako Nishizaki (violin), Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Menuhin and Kempff are delightful in this piece, playing as though they were at the opera themselves. The minor key variation has a strong pull. Takako Nishizaki and Jenő Jandó are excellent, too – they pull the tempo around less but that works well in the longer scheme of things.

Spotify links

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

Takako Nishizaki, Jenő Jandó

Also written in 1793 Haydn Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:32

Next up Octet in E flat major Op.103

1 thought on “Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

  1. Pingback: Listening to Beethoven #55 – Rondo in G major for piano and violin | Arcana.fm

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