Beethoven: Bust en face in oval – ivory miniature, 1802 by Christian Hornemann, courtesy of Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
6 Variations on an original theme in F major Op.34 for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)
What’s the theme like?
The theme is Beethoven’s own, unusually – and is a slow, stately number with an expansive chord in the middle.
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven’s stay in the village of Heiligenstadt was a turning point in his life. The principal reason for this was the onset of his deafness, and he used the change of location as a time to come to terms with that, hence the Heiligenstadt Testament referred to previously.
Yet his increasingly original approaches to composition were there for all to see, not least in this set of variations from 1802. For the first time in a long while he did not use another composer’s music for the theme, writing one himself – and he proceeded to turn it into a number of very different variations, each one of the six in a different key.
Angela Hewitt has recently recorded the work for Hyperion, and writes a telling quote from the composer. ‘Usually I have to wait for other people to tell me when I have new ideas, because I never know this myself. But this time – I myself can assure you that in both these works the manner is quite new for me.’
The originality is also noted by Harold Truscott, writing about the piano music in The Beethoven Companion. ‘The whole outlook is utterly different from that of any first-period work’, he writes. ‘The Adagio theme has the luxurious sprawl of so many of his first-period slow movements – on the surface; in fact it is as tight as a drum, and there is not a note that does not contribute to the basic theme and harmonic texture essential for the variations.’
Hewitt identifies the penultimate variation as a key component. ‘What really makes this work is…a funeral march in C minor (foreshadowing his Eroica symphony). Nothing could be further from the mood of the original theme.’ She also points out how the sixth and ‘final’ variation actually contains a further two ‘bonus’ variations.
This is not your typical set of Beethoven variations. Right from the start it is clear something will be different, from the expansive theme that stresses the home key of F major – but presents some lavish, added-note chords as it does so. Beethoven then leaves said home key behind as he embarks on a harmonic and melodic adventure, having fun but preserving the musicality.
The appearance of D major for the first variation is a surprise, employing a very similar tactic to the fourth bagatelle of the Op.33 set he was working on at almost the same time. The B flat second variation feels like a piece of early Schumann, a rustic march-like affair, while the third in G major is an airy aside, operating in much longer melodic units.
The fourth variation is a bit more playful, its roots in the dance, while the fifth probes deeper, as Hewitt identifies, with raw emotion and full, red-blooded chords as punctuation. The sixth variation turns out to be a remarkable section showing Beethoven’s fearsome powers of invention. Lasting one third of the work, it starts with a long build-up on a ‘C’ chord before playfully throwing the theme around back in the ‘home’ key. This leads to a section of trills, like an elaborate cadenza in a piano concerto, before a relatively calm, measured finish.
Full of invention and unpredictability, this is without doubt one of Beethoven’s finest variation sets to date – and yet it is still not well known! Something to put right…
Recordings used and Spotify links
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Glenn Gould (Sony)
The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Angela Hewitt’s version on the Hyperion website
There are some terrific versions of this piece, led by Angela Hewitt’s new recording for Hyperion, which shows just how much she loves the work with some wonderful characterisations. Cécile Ousset is also outstanding in her flowing account, as is Rudolf Buchbinder, who contributes a steely funeral march. Ronald Brautigam has a great deal of bravura and punch in his account on the fortepiano.
Also written in 1802 Clementi Piano Sonata in G major Op.40/1
Next up 15 Variations on an Original Theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’