Portrait of Beethoven as a young man by Carl Traugott Riedel and Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens
15 Variations and fugue on an original theme in E flat major Op.35 ‘Eroica’ for piano (1802, Beethoven aged 31)
What’s the theme like?
Although this piece is known as the Eroica Variations, the theme is taken from the finale to Beethoven’s music for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus:
Background and Critical Reception
This substantial set of variations became known as the Eroica Variations because Beethoven used the tune in the finale of his third symphony, the Eroica.
Angela Hewitt describes the set as his most ‘bravura orientated’ variations, going on to illustrate how, before we even hear the main Eroica theme, Beethoven presents a theme in the bass and proceeds to unwind three variations on it. She notes how the theme and its fifteen variations ‘delight us with their compositional and pianistic fancies’.
Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion, has some controversial views on Beethoven’s piano writing, branding it ‘on the borderline between difficulty and awkwardness. This is a quality frequently found in Beethoven’s keyboard writing’, he writes, ‘although no one ever mentions it’. He does, however, concede that ‘the Eroica set is a masterpiece for the most part unique in his work’.
Lewis Lockwood labels ‘this great work…the culmination of Beethoven’s early variations sets’. ‘In any case’, he writes, ‘Opus 35 is a milestone in the history of variation. Its introduction dramatically unfolds several elements in order, as if Beethoven, at the keyboard instead of writing in a sketchbook, was sequentially building the thematic material before the very ears of the listener.’
Where the previous set of variations in F major could be described as ‘not your typical set of variations’, this is something else. When you are done listening to the Eroica variations, this is a piece where you are left in no doubt that Beethoven has put his entire heart and soul into writing a piece, and has channelled some extraordinary powers of invention. By the end it is difficult to say exactly how many variations there are, as they seem to fuse into each other.
The introduction is pure drama – and Beethoven’s insistent B flats sound like a knock on the door, as though the theme is waiting to get in. When it does finally arrive the piece is already in full swing, and the mood is already buoyant. The theme and first variation have a spring in their step, the balletic origins laid clear – and as Beethoven gets to work, the dance gets faster.
The second variation is effectively a cadenza, showing off Beethoven’s virtuosity to the full – not just as a performer but as a composer too. His writing is quasi-orchestral, the fourth variation depicting a lively bassoon giving out the variation and strings plucking in the middle ground. Calmer waters are found for the fifth, but soon the textures are full again and the ideas overflowing. The piano writing is remarkably dense and demanding, but thrilling too.
Variation 7, marked Canone all’Ottava, anticipates the fugue but practically stamps on the keyboard at times. What the audience would have made of Beethoven’s bravura and daring is anybody’s guess. Varation 9 picks up a similar theme, where it feels like the B flat has got stuck, while the tenth is like a blast of cold air, disappearing up some odd tonal alleyways. We return to the ballet for Variation 11, the keyboard opens out in the 12th, before the 13th reintroduces the ‘stuck’ B flat in a jarring upper register, in an act both maddening and humorous!
A much-needed respite arrives with Variation 14, where we move to the minor key for a reflective episode. Far from running out of ideas with the ‘final’ variation, Beethoven feels like he has only just got started, and the lead-up to the fugue acquires impressive gravitas. The fugue itself is symphonic, its tune unusually hummable, with a lot of action between the parts.
At the risk of sounding like a cracked record, what a remarkable piece this is. Beethoven’s powers of invention are truly stretched, but the feeling remains that he could have written enough for another half hour of music without flagging. We will see an awful lot more of that invention as his pieces move further and further away from the norm.
Recordings used and Spotify links
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (Philips)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Glenn Gould (Sony)
Some very impressive recordings here, not least the newest – a dazzling but extremely musical account from Hewitt, whose musicality always comes before the virtuosity. Emil Gilels is masterly from the commanding first chord and thoughtful theme. Cécile Ousset conveys the scope of the piece immediately, inhabiting the drama of the introduction, and having a lot of fun with the dance variations.
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
Also written in 1802 Samuel Wesley Symphony in B flat major
Next up Symphony no.2 in D major Op.36