Ludwig van Beethoven and George Frideric Handel (right)
12 Variations on ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO45 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)
Dedication thought to be Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
What’s the theme like?
Handel’s theme is a chorus from his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. It is a popular tune which has been turned into a popular Christian hymn, Thine be the glory.
Background and Critical Reception
Soon after the success of his two Op.5 sonatas for piano and cello, Beethoven wrote a couple of sets of variations for the same instrumental combination. The dedicatee appears once again to have been Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, with the cello-playing Duport brothers seemingly closely involved.
As Arcana discovered in a previous article, Beethoven’s love of the music of Handel ran deep. Later in his life he was to acquire Samuel Arnold’s first collected edition of Handel’s music (1787-97). Beethoven’s Cello – an excellent and compelling study of his music for the instrument by Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd – has an engaging account of the work’s genesis.
It seems likely Beethoven attended a concert of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus in Vienna in April 1794, but that his decision to use the ‘conquering hero’ theme came later. There are accounts of a concert in Berlin in 1796, when he improvised on the theme and, as Beethoven’s Cello recounts, ‘his listeners were so moved that they crowded around him and wept’. The decision to include cello ‘is not clear, but perhaps Duport played some role’, says the book.
There are twelve variations, beginning with keyboard-led music but gradually giving greater prominence to the cello. The seventh variation features a challenging display of tumbling triplets in the cello, noted by Moskovitz and Todd as having an affinity with Duport’s sixth etude. This variation is described by Steven Isserlis as the ‘one hideously difficult’ variation of the twelve.
Beethoven’s inspiration flows freely in this immediately likable work. The theme is memorable, one of Handel’s best tunes, and its triumphal air makes an early impact. The two instruments have an enjoyable and lightly spiced interplay, briefly turning baleful in the fourth, minor key variation but resuming its infectious optimism immediately afterwards.
The seventh variation is indeed a nasty one for the cellist, with skittish figures dancing all over the place, but then it’s the pianist’s turn, with a thundering statement. The two resume their ‘dance’, with a triumphant tenth variation – more bravura from the piano – and a substantial coda, with some slower thoughts, which leads to a subtly joyful finish.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)
The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website
There are some starry accounts of these variations, from father and son pairing Alfred and Adrian Brendel, from Martha Argerich and Mischa Maisky, and András Schiff with Miklós Perényi to name just three excellent versions. However it may not surprise you to learn that Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin pip them at the post with a thoroughly enjoyable account, recreating something of the air in the concert hall after Beethoven’s instinctive improvising in Berlin. Also highly commended is a new version from Alexander Lonquich and Nicolas Altstaedt.
Also written in 1796 Haydn Guarda qui, che lo vedrai Hob.XXVa:1
Next up 12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Op.66