Beethoven and Goethe
6 Variations on Ich denke dein WoO 74 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 31)
Dedication Therese, Josephine and Charlotte von Brunsvik
Background and Critical Reception
Keith Anderson writes that in 1799, Beethoven ‘wrote a setting of Goethe’s Ich denke dein and four variations for piano duet on the theme for two pupils, the Countesses Therese and Josephine Brunsvik, daughters of a family with which Beethoven remained friendly through much of his life. In 1803 he added two more variations and the song and variations were published in 1805.
Pianist Peter Hill, writing for a recent recording he made with Benjamin Frith on the Delphian label, highlights Beethoven’s affection for Josephine, expressed in a passionate letter later in his life. He notes the romantic mood of the theme and its variations, pointing towards Mendelsssohn in the faster music especially.
As the story implies, this is a domestic piece for use among close friends. It certainly has that intimate, conversational feel, with less obvious opportunities for virtuosic display but plenty to keep the players occupied and impressed with Beethoven’s resourceful working.
The theme itself is warm hearted, the first variation too. Then Beethoven plays around with syncopations, the two players gainfully employed, before a thoughtful, slow third variation, which is unexpectedly deep in feeling. This time out enhances the fourth variation, a fizzy affair with exchanges between the two players which drew the Mendelssohn comparison from Peter Hill. Darker colours appear briefly for an instalment in the minor key, after which the sunlit textures of D major return and the piece ends calmly but warmly, providing a glimpse of an all-too rare warmth and tenderness in Beethoven’s life at the time.
Recordings used and Spotify playlist
Peter Hill & Benjamin Frith (Delphian)
Amy and Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Louis Lortie & Hélène Mercier (Chandos)
Jörg Demus & Norman Shetler (Deutsche Grammophon)
All excellent versions, capturing the intimacy of Beethoven’s writing but also the glint in the eye as he writes.
Also written in 1803 von Pasterwicz 300 Themata und Versetten Op.42
Next up Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor Op.37