Beethoven and the Austrian composer Wenzel Müller, who wrote the initial theme on which the ‘Kakadu’ variations are based
Variations on Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu Op.121a for piano trio (1803, revised 1819-20. Beethoven aged 33 at time of composition)
Dedication Prince Nikolas Borissovich Galitzin
by Ben Hogwood
Background and Critical Reception
The reference material I have been using for the Beethoven project has the Kakadu variations with a completion date of 1803 – though there are another tranche of dates to take into account. The first autograph score appeared in 1816 after what appears to have been a number of revisions, giving an indication of how Beethoven regarded the material. The opus number 121 confirms a much later publication date of 1824, closely followed by the Choral symphony.
Lewis Lockwood suspects that a number of revisions may even have been made as late as this, particularly the striking introduction with which the work begins. The theme, however, is taken from an opera by the Austrian composer Wenzel Müller. Completed in 1794, the comedy Die Schwestern von Prag (‘The sisters from Prague’) contains the aria I am Kakadu the tailor, whose main theme is lifted by Beethoven for this piece. Following a large introduction are 11 variations on the theme.
This is a substantial piece of work, especially with a full bodied introduction added to the front. In truth this introduction gives the Kakadu variations something of a Baroque profile, giving it a stern, slow minor key introduction, very much a ‘Grave’. It builds in tension, too, with some pretty sparse material that lasts over a third of the piece, and is drawn out for maximum dramatic impact.
Once the theme finally arrives it is something of a light relief, with quite a jaunty profile as the piano and staccato strings set out the simple tune. A feeling of contentment prevails, and this spreads to a flowing first variation and a second variation with light hearted triplets on the violin.
The cello takes over melodic duties for a warm third variation, and the interplay becomes more dense – a sparkling fourth and more intimate fifth attest. The sixth opens the hatches with octaves on the piano, before a thoughtful seventh brings violin and cello alone, the former sweetly sung. The piano’s return is initially quite restrained, the ninth variation a hark back to the solemn introduction and a pause for thought. For the tenth it is as though the trio have saddled a horse and ridden off at speed. The last variation and finale is a wholly suitable summing up, bringing the work to a bracing conclusion.
Spotify playlist and Recordings used
Beaux Arts Trio (Philips Classics)
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline du Pré (cello) (EMI)
Rudolf Serkin (piano), Yuzuko Horigome (violin), Peter Wiley (cello) (Sony Classical)
Florestan Piano Trio (Hyperion)
Stuttgart Piano Trio (SWR)
There are some heavyweight trio combinations who have taken on the Kakadu variations. Among them are the superstar trio of Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and Jacqueline du Pre, whose high voltage version is a memorable encounter. As enjoyable are the versions from the Beaux Arts Trio, the Stuttgart Trio, and Rudolf Serkin leading the Marlboro Music Society.
The below playlist contains those these recordings, while you can click here for clips from the Florestan Trio account
You can chart the Arcana Beethoven playlist as it grows, with one recommended version of each piece we listen to. Catch up here!
Also written in 1803 Danzi Sextet in E major Op.15
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