Listening to Beethoven #108 – 12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Op.66

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication thought to be Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 10′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is Papageno’s aria, from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), where he expresses his desire for a wife over a glass of wine:

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s flurry of activity writing for the piano and cello in 1796 yielded four works. Alongside the two groundbreaking sonatas published as Op.5 came two sets of unpublished variations, seemingly inspired by the same dedicatee and performers. The first set had fun with music by Handel, yet – as the excellent Beethoven’s Cello book reveals – this one has slightly more serious origins.

‘In all likelihood Beethoven finished these variations after his return to Vienna’, says the book. They were not published until 1819, when they were assigned the opus number 66 – overlooked when the Fifth Symphony was published ten years earlier. The book suggests Beethoven encountered The Magic Flute in Berlin, thanks to Frederick William II’s promotion. The roots of the piece, however, appear to lie in Beethoven’s competitive edge. They may have been designed in response to Abbé Gelinek, a pupil of Beethoven’s teacher Albrechtsberger and a popular piano teacher in Vienna.

Gelinek had already completed a set of ‘frivolous piano variations’ on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen three years earlier. ‘Beethoven seems to have taken his lead from Gelinek’s six variations by producing twelve’, says the book, ‘starting in the same manner so he could eventually ‘out-compose’ his rival’. Gelinek’s is entertaining and pleasing, but not musically adventurous; Beethoven’s more assertively tests the limits of the theme and probes the possibilities for constructing a little musical drama around it. A contemporary review questioned Beethoven’s potential as a composer, for he was guilty of unusual tonal movements and ‘harmonic harshness’.

Thoughts

Beethoven has a lot of fun here. A perky introduction of the theme sees piano and cello in level partnership, with straightforward musical punctuation. Then, as the variations proceed, both instruments really start to express themselves. The piano offers a nicely weighted variation before the cello shows off its prowess in the higher register. This is Steven Isserlis’ ‘nightmarish’ second variation, the most difficult – and it’s easy to see why, with a high register and some very tricky jumps.

Once that’s over there is a lot for the cello to enjoy in rich, expressive exchanges with the piano, Beethoven’s bubbling stream of ideas showing no sign of letting up. Some are quickfire and virtuosic, others slow and profound, showing off the expressive tone of the cellist. There are also a couple of brisk marches, the second with block chords from the piano. As often seems to be the case with these pieces, the minor-key variation (the tenth) proves pivotal, a plaintive start growing into a substantial and emotional duet with unusual, questioning harmonies. Coming out of this, the two instruments have renewed energy and finish with a flourish.

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

Again it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get the measure of the piece, from its light hearted moments to the deep and questioning minor key variation.

Also written in 1796 Haydn Saper vorrei se m’ami, Hob.XXVa:2

Next up Ah! Perfido Op.65

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