Beethoven and Joseph Kreutzinger – Kaiser Franz I, ruler of Austria in 1803. Portrait by Joseph Kreutzinger c.1815
7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 32)
Dedication George Thomson
Background and Critical Reception
Beethoven continued to use the variation form as something of a compositional playground, while on the other hand completing works of an ever-expanding structure, such as the Kreutzer Sonata we have just appraised.
His source material was imaginatively drawn, and on occasion to him suggested by others. As Angela Hewitt writes for Hyperion. ‘it probably comes as a surprise to many to know that Beethoven wrote variations on the current British national anthem….but indeed he did. In 1803 he was approached by George Thomson, a civil servant living in Edinburgh who was passionate about collecting folk songs from his own country. He wanted Beethoven to compose six sonatas on Scottish melodies—a project which never materialized, but which started a business relationship that lasted until 1820. For Thomson, Beethoven completed some 150 arrangements of Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk songs (including Auld lang syne). Towards the end of 1803, he sent him these two sets of variations for piano, saying they weren’t too difficult and hoping they would have much success.’
Beethoven was keen to ‘show the English what a blessing they have’ with that tune’, which had by 1795 found use in Prussia as a royal anthem.’.
It comes as no surprise to report that Beethoven has a good deal of fun with this tune. It is almost crying out for the slightly irreverent but highly musical treatment it gets at his hands, from the skittish rhythms of the second variation to the rumbling bass of the left hand in the third.
The fourth variation resorts to the minor key but is not as downcast as Beethoven has tended towards in previous variation sets. Soon we recapture the tongue in cheek mood through a march (variation six) and a mischievous coda, which runs from po-faced solemnity to outrageous gymnastics for the pianist.
A thoroughly entertaining ten minutes offering the firmest possible proof of Beethoven’s sense of humour. A good one to pull out at dinner parties, too!
Recordings used and Spotify playlist
Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (Regis)
John Ogdon (EMI)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)
There are some very entertaining versions in the list above. If anything Beethoven’s humour sounds most brazen on a fortepiano, giving Ronald Brautigam’s version extra edge. Cécile Ousset is typically classy, Buchbinder too, while Hewitt’s new recording shows how much she clearly loves Beethoven’ send-up of one of the world’s most famous tunes.
You can listen to an excerpt from the recording by Angela Hewitt, released in 2021, on the Hyperion website
Also written in 1803 Pierre Rode Violin Concerto no.7 in A minor Op.9
Next up 5 Variations on Rule Britannia WoO79