Listening to Beethoven #201 – 5 Variations on ‘Rule, Britannia’ WoO79

beethoven-arne

Beethoven and Thomas Arne (a lithography caricature after Francesco Bartolozzi)

7 Variations on ‘God save the King’ WoO78 for two pianos (1799-1803, Beethoven aged 32)

Dedication George Thomson
Duration 5’30”

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is one of the best-known tunes in the British Isles today. Rule, Britannia! was written by James Thomson in 1740, and set to music by Thomas Arne the same year. It first appeared in Arne’s opera Alfred, but went on to gain its standing as one of Britain’s most patriotic songs through frequent performance at the Last Night of the Proms:

Background and Critical Reception

This is the second of two British national tunes taken up by Beethoven after an approach from George Thomson in 1803. Towards the end of the year Beethoven sent him the variations on God Save The King and this smaller set of five, taking its lead from Thomas Arne’s famous tune.

Angela Hewitt writes how the variations, ‘besides being a humorous offering from the composer, are also a great piece on which to work, and demand careful preparation’. After presenting such a rousing theme, Beethoven surprisingly gives us some rumbling in the bass (maybe a nod to the navy—it sort of sounds like being underwater), though we come out of it eventually. Variation 2 has a lovely lyrical, syncopated line, while variation 3 has typical Beethoven fingerwork. The fourth variation goes into an angry B minor and gives us the theme in recognizable form, again with those bass rumblings. Things lighten up for the last variation, onto which he tacks a very amusing coda. I hope your first reaction at the end will be to laugh!’

Thoughts

Once again Beethoven’s sense of humour comes to the fore in this variations set. It takes a little longer, however, for as the Rule, Britannia theme is presented the mood is chaste and respectful. The first variation does indeed sound mysterious, and the lilting second continues the watery association, a kind of barcarolle.

For the third variation the mood is busy and energetic, then the fourth puts on a stern countenance and heads for the lower reaches of the piano again. The slip back to D major from the darker B minor is effortlessly done – at which point the music races away to a sparkling fifth variation and impudent coda. Once again, beautifully and amusingly done!

Recordings used and Spotify playlist

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence)
Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec)
Ronald Brautigam (BIS)
John Ogdon (EMI)
Olli Mustonen (Decca)
Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

The variations give a rousing finish to Angela Hewitt’s superb new disc of Beethoven variations on Hyperion, with the first variation appropriately strange as it plumbs the murky depths of the piano. Ousset is typically classy with her account, while Ronald Brautigam is very much outdoors in the full spray of the waves. His third variation in particular is a treat.

You can listen to an excerpt from the recording by Angela Hewitt, released in 2021, on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1803 Krommer Oboe Concerto in F major Op.37

Next up Serenade for piano and flute in D major Op.41

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