Listening to Beethoven #161 – 6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major, WoO 77

Ludwig van Beethoven – portrait by Gandolph Ernst Stainhauser

6 Easy Variations on an original theme in G major WoO 77 for piano (1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication unknown
Duration 7′


What’s the theme like?

Unusually, the theme appears to be Beethoven’s own. It is an ‘easy to play’ number, simply structured but ripe for development. There is just the hint of a dance round the edges.

Background and Critical Reception

So far in his Viennese career Beethoven has not gone long without dashing off another theme and set of variations – and even with so many important pieces and premieres around him, the year of 1800 was no exception. Despite their title, these ones have meaning though. The educational intent behind the Easy Variations on an original theme,writes Jean-Charles Hoffelé, ‘should not distract the listener from what is daring about the music: the expressive power of the Poco sostenuto creates an astonishing effect at the centre of the set.’

The variation to which he refers is the fourth, set in a minor key and providing a striking contrast to those around it.


These are beautifully crafted variations, and as is suggested they prove far more emotive than the title suggests. They are a good showpiece for a pianist, with elements of soft and loud, delicate and heavy, often within the same variation. After a simple beginning Beethoven puts the pianist through their paces with a terrifically pacy second variation them an ultra-solemn fourth, which really delves deep into the heart. Set in the minor key, the music withdraws to a simple unison statement, the hands one octave apart and trapped further down on the keyboard.

When all seems lost a brighter passage appears on cue, a real ‘darkness to light’ moment where the music looks outwards and upwards. Beethoven can’t then resist a final flourish before the end, signalling his determination to push on.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Olli Mustonen (piano) (Decca)
Cécile Ousset (piano) (Eloquence)
Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) (BIS)
Alfred Brendel (piano) (Vox)
John Ogdon (piano) (EMI)

Some really fine versions here. Olli Mustonen’s is spring-loaded to begin with but hurtles through a quick fourth variation which is far from anything easy! He is a terrific entertainer, whereas John Ogdon and Alfred Brendel are both superb but have a measured control. The variations transfer well to fortepiano, and are clearly enjoyed by Ronald Brautigam.

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 1800 Campagnoli 6 Fugues for Solo Violin Op.10

Next up Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major Op.22

Listening to Beethoven #160 – Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21

Gustav Klimt, Beethovenfries (Detail): Poesie
Poesie, detail from the Beethoven-Frieze (1902) by Gustav Klimt

Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21 for orchestra (1799-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Baron Gottfried van Swieten
Duration 30′

1. Adagio molto – Allegro con brio
2. Andante cantabile con moto
3. Menuetto: Allegro molto e vivace
4. Adagio – Allegro molto e vivace


Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven took his time before setting down his first symphonic work. Aware of the prowess already shown by Haydn and Mozart, he wanted to be on a sure footing with his first contribution to the form, and used a big concert in Vienna to make his move. The concert contained a major Mozart symphony – thought to be the Prague or the Jupiter – an aria from Haydn’s The Creation, and three major Beethoven works. The first was the Septet, fresh off the page, thought to have been followed by the First Piano Concerto and, finally, this new Symphony.

Reaction was favourable, the only slight criticism an observation that the wind section enjoyed a much higher profile than previously. Beethoven’s other formal inventions were subtle enough to ease the audience into the first part of a transition – with the most inventive tactic deployed early on. The very first chord is the key – C major, but with an added B flat – the seventh – pointing the music towards F major. It may not seem a massive switch but listen to the first chord and you will hear just how different its emphasis is, the first time a composer had tried such a trick in a symphony.

Having pointed this out Jan Swafford is keen to emphasise the traditional aspects of the symphony, the first movement proceeding with ‘a vigorous, military-toned Allegro con brio, its phrasing foursquare, its modulations modest, its development and coda not excessively long’. Similar observations are made on the cautious aspects of the other three movements, though the Minuetto is noted to be a ‘dashing’ scherzo. Overall, for Swafford, ‘as a composer of symphonies and concertos he would rest patiently in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart and experiment with voices while he waited for his muse to show him a more adventurous path.’

Daniel Heartz is more complimentary, though also notes how ‘the symphony as a whole does not reach the level of Haydn and Mozart at their best. All praise to Beethoven, nevertheless, for having the courage to essay a genre that did not come easily to him, and to persevere over four or five years until he was ready to brave public appearance as a symphonist.

A final word to Brahms. ‘I also see that Beethoven’s First Symphony seemed so colossal to its first audiences. It has indeed a new viewpoint. But the last three Mozart symphonies are much more significant. Now and then people realise that this is so’.


While all the critical observations note Beethoven’s caution and respect of tradition in the First Symphony, it is still a remarkable work for its time. It also has great invention, and in a sense Beethoven’s work as an original thinker was already done by the time the first chord had been intoned. Using that particular chord, the C major seventh, would have been a real eyeopener for anybody of the time, a tactic not yet tried that suggested a composer ready to take risks.

As it proceeds the first movement is full of vigorous debate and fulsome writing for wind, an enjoyable dialogue with bags of positive energy. Beethoven writes with great assurance, the dynamic is often loud and the mood upbeat throughout.

In the second movement a tender side is revealed, along with a little wit resembling Haydn – it has a similar profile to the slow movement of his teacher’s Symphony no.100, the ‘Clock’. It also slips into the distant key of D flat major, wholly typical of Beethoven to be thinking further afield with his harmonies, but from here he fashions an effortless return ‘home’.

It may be marked ‘Minuetto’ but there is no way the third movement is anything other than a scherzo. It has a very simple profile – an upwardly rising scale – but Beethoven typically works it into something meaningful. Only 25 seconds in and he’s back in D flat major, showing once again the skill with which he can move between keys. With syncopations and catchy exchanges this is a compact marvel. The trio section is also incredibly straightforward, a series of repeated chords from the woodwind, but once again very effective.

The way Beethoven introduces his main tune in the finale is also very clever, stepping up a ladder one step at a time, returning to earth, then rushing up to the top for the full tune. It generates a good deal of momentum to power this substantial movement, which as Daniel Heartz says represents a desire on the part of the composer to give his works more impetus at the end rather than the beginning. As the symphonies progress we will see this more and more.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

NBC Symphony Orchestra / Arturo Toscanini (RCA)
Cleveland Orchestra / George Szell (Sony Classical)
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century / Frans Brüggen (Philips)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Claudio Abbado (Deutsche Grammophon)
Danish Chamber Orchestra / Ádám Fischer (Naxos)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä (BIS)

To listen to clips from the recording from the Scottih Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras on Hyperion, head to their website

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 1800 Weber Das stumme Waldmädchen

Next up 6 Easy Variations on an Original Theme WoO 77

Listening to Beethoven #159 – Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19

Beethoven (1987) by Andy Warhol – screenprint on Lenox Museum Board

Piano Concerto no.2 in B flat major Op.19 for piano and orchestra (1787-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Karl Nickl von Nickelsberg
Duration 30′


Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s ‘second’ piano concerto has a detailed history, and is actually his first in order of composition, completed some distance before the official no.1.

Thought to have been started in Bonn as far back as 1787, when the composer was just 16, it underwent several revisions, with the first movement the only survivor from the original edition. Beethoven had an original version of the Rondo in B flat major in place for a performance in Prague in 1798, but this was ‘upgraded’ later that year.

When he presented the concerto to his publisher Hoffmeister, on 15 January 1801, Beethoven introduced the second concerto as a piece ‘which I do not claim to be one of my best’. Jan Swafford, while agreeing the first movement is ‘one of the most routine orchestral movements Beethoven ever published’, goes on to note that ‘…beneath a not particularly bold surface, his searching nature can’t help showing itself’. He highlights the ‘startling tonal excursions’ of the first movement, and the ‘more mature, more Viennese’ nature of the second and third. A link is also drawn to ‘the lofty choruses of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte’ in the Adagio.

Barry Cooper, in his notes for the recent recording by Stephen Hough, Hannu Lintu and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra on Hyperion, describes the ‘strange, off-beat theme’ of the finale, ‘that adds a great sense of humour to the movement – especially when it returns near the end in a remote key (G major), with the rhythm shifted slightly so that the long notes now fall on the beat instead of after it.’


This is Beethoven with bright eyes and a bushy tail, though throughout the Piano Concerto no.2 there is often a sense of politeness, as though the composer is keen to establish himself in the form before doing anything too outlandish.

The first movement is the most expansive, and there are some lovely moments, particularly the way the piano floats in on the back of the orchestral introduction. Soon the keyboard is dominating with flourishes for both hands, exchanging thoughts with the orchestra.

Beethoven enjoys moving into distant keys – thematic material appears in D flat major and then in the beautifully hushed tones of G flat. Other than that he has a lot of fun, and when the movement hints at a soft ending the piano bubbles up to lift the energy and cross the line at a faster pace.

The heart of this piece, however, lies in the second movement Adagio. The breathy introduction from the strings is a magical moment, Beethoven in one of his favourite keys (E flat major) but writing music of an operatic dimension, an aria for piano and orchestra. His studies with Salieri may well have informed this.

As with the first concerto, the best tune is saved for the last movement – and again it is a Rondo, giving concert-goers an earworm for the interval – and just about trumping the original Rondo that Beethoven had written, which now survives as a standalone piece. This one is particularly upbeat, and there are elements of the military march. The third theme, in G minor, has a rustic quality with its ornamentation.

The B flat concerto would surely have been the ideal vehicle for Beethoven as he gradually left his musical mark on Viennese concert life. On occasion it resembles Mozart’s last concerto, in the same key, but there are original elements that could only be by Beethoven, who has fun with virtuosity at the keyboard, unexpected harmonic shifts and a dialogue with the orchestra that is never less than genial. It is a fresh and invigorating piece.

Spotify playlist and Recordings used

Wilhelm Kempff, Berliner Philharmoniker / Ferdinand Leitner (Deutsche Grammophon)
Robert Levin, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (Arkiv)
Mitsuko Uchida, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Kurt Sanderling (Philips)
Rudolf Serkin, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Rafael Kubelik (Orfeo)
Claudio Arrau, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink (Philips)
Martha Argerich, Philharmonia Orchestra / Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon)
Ronald Brautigam, Die Kölner Akademie / Michael Alexander Willens (BIS)
Stephen Hough, Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Hannu Lintu (Hyperion)
Stephen Kovacevich, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis (Philips)

The B flat concerto is a particularly fresh piece of work in the hands of Stephen Kovacevich, with bright accompaniment from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Sir Colin Davis. Robert Levin and John Eliot Gardiner’s account is very nicely judged, and there is a magical moment towards the end of the slow movement when the main theme returns in hushed strings. Boris Giltburg has a light touch in the first movement of his recording with the RLPO and Petrenko, and the orchestra respond to his airy approach, making the music sound fresh. The tender slow movement is beautifully poised. Mitsuko Uchida brings balance and a light touch to her recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Kurt Sanderling, who are occasionally expansive in their accompaniment.

To listen to clips from Stephen Hough’s new recording on Hyperion, head to their website

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 1800 Boieldieu Harp Concerto in C major

Next up Symphony no.1 in C major Op.21

Listening to Beethoven #158 – String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6

op186-ship on the elbe early morningShip on the River Elbe in the Early Morning Mist, by Caspar David Friedrich (c1821)

String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 28′

1. Allegro con brio
2. Adagio ma non troppo
3. Scherzo: Allegro
4. La Malinconia: Adagio – Allegretto quasi Allegro


written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

The sixth and final quartet of Op.18/6 set was also the last to be finished. Many Beethoven writers see this as the most emotive work of the six, and also the one with most pointers towards future developments in the composer’s music.

Ludwig Finscher again, in his booklet notes for the Melos Quartet recordings on Deutsche Grammophon: ‘This quartet is without doubt the most mature and the most profound of the six in every conceivable respect: in its formal assurance, in the balance and contrast of the movements, and in the individual characterization of them.’

He describes the first movement as ‘relaxed yet disciplines, and the second as achieving a ‘sweet melancholy’, in contrast to the ‘black melancholy’ of the last. After a ‘tour de force’ scherzo comes the finale, ‘spirituality and intellectually the most demanding movement in the whole of Op.18’.

This movement has the heading La Malincolia, with the specific direction Questo pezzo si deve trattare colla più gran delicatezza (This piece is to be played with the greatest delicacy’)


Once again Beethoven starts a quartet with the music in a good mood. There is a slightly cheeky aspect to the first movement of this quartet as the first violin and cello enjoy sharing the catchy tune. The music chugs along with a smile on its face but there is a lot going on behind the scenes, each idea tautly argued and shared.

The slow movement is profound, Beethoven filling out the texture of the four movements, the string quartet sounding more ‘romantic’ as the thoughtful ideas take hold. The scherzo shows Beethoven’s desire to move away from the basic Minuet to employ rhythmic invention, with cross rhythms and syncopations at every turn, as well as the clever use of silence.

However it is with the last movement that Beethoven employs his most dramatic turn, and it is in music of quiet solitude rather than through any fireworks. The cold opening strains are unexpected, the mood of desolation and at complete odds with the conversational first movement. Now the quartet are in unison, as though the instruments dare not stray from the quartet line.

Then, suddenly, that mood is swept under the carpet as a resolute Allegretto asserts itself. Yet it proves difficult to forget the impact of what has gone before, and sure enough the Malincolia music returns. Eventually the two strains are directly at odds, and although the quartet ends vigorously, the impression it leaves is rather different.

Finscher has a theory for this. ‘Nor should the possibility be excluded that this depiction of melancholia, which brings Op.18 to its conclusion and can hardly be a mere whim, has something to do with the fact that at the very time of its composition Beethoven was being made aware of the first symptoms of deafness.’

Recordings used and Spotify links

Quatuor Mosaïques (Andrea Bischof, Erich Höbarth (violins), Anita Mitterer (viola), Christophe Coin (cello)
Melos Quartet (Wilhelm Melcher and Gerhard Voss (violins), Hermann Voss (viola), Peter Buck (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Borodin String Quartet (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Andras Fejér (Decca)
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) (Harmonia Mundi)
Tokyo String Quartet (Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello) (BMG)
Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh, Sándor Zöldy (violins), Georges Janzer (viola) & Paul Szabo (cello) (Valois)

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 1800 Salieri Cesare in Farmacusa

Next up tbc

Listening to Beethoven #157 – String Quartet in A major Op.18/5

op184-Friedrich_-_Morning_mist_in_the_mountainsMorning Mist In The Mountains, by Caspar David Friedrich (1808)

String Quartet in C minor Op.18/4 (1798-1800, Beethoven aged 29)

Dedication Count Johann Georg von Browne
Duration 29′

1. Allegro ma non tanto
2. Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto
3. Menuetto: Allegro
4. Allegro – Prestissimo


written by Ben Hogwood

Background and Critical Reception

As part of his preparation for entering into the world of the string quartet, Beethoven copied put two of Mozart’s quartets by hand. Both were part of the six works dedicated to Haydn in 1785 – in G major, K387, and in A major, K464.

This piece became the stimulus for Beethoven’s own A major quartet, published fifth in the Op.18 set. Each commentary explores the relationship between the two pieces, examining the influences and similarities.

Yet, as Ludwig Finscher writes, this is no dutiful homage. Beethoven creates his own inspiration, while also respecting tradition. ‘The thematic material and processes, the 6/8 time signature, and the relaxed, playful tone of the first movement are all typical of the ‘lighter’ works traditionally placed at the end of a quartet opus.’

He describes the A major quartet as being ‘in a different class’ to the previously published work in C minor. It places the Minuet second and the Andante third, for Finscher ‘a demanding slow movement, whose quality is especially evident in the glorious coda’. He also identifies a shift in emphasis towards the last movement in Beethoven’s writing, with ‘a thoroughly densely and imaginatively crafted sonata-form finale.’


This is a ‘sunny side up’ piece of music right from the start, the first violin irrepressible as it breaks into song. The mood prevails throughout the piece but especially in the first movement, where a bright outlook is achieved in spite of some dense part writing.

The Minuet is attractive too, with more of an emphasis on the dance, and an attractive contrasting trio section where the composer uses a drone. The sunny approach continued into the third movement, Beethoven resorting to a theme and variations format for the only time in the Op.18 set. His practice efforts for the piano really bear fruit here, in the winsome written-out trills of the third variation and the slow, hymn like fourth especially.

The finale is indeed dense and eventful, but again the mood is wholly positive. The quartet are busy throughout, Beethoven treating the four protagonists on an equal footing as they exchange ideas and thoughts. The end is softly voiced, the conversation coming to a natural rest.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Quatuor Mosaïques (Andrea Bischof, Erich Höbarth (violins), Anita Mitterer (viola), Christophe Coin (cello)
Melos Quartet (Wilhelm Melcher and Gerhard Voss (violins), Hermann Voss (viola), Peter Buck (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Borodin String Quartet (Ruben Aharonian, Andrei Abramenkov (violins), Igor Naidin (viola), Valentin Berlinsky (cello) (Chandos)
Takács Quartet (Edward Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violins), Roger Tapping (viola), Andras Fejér (Decca)
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins), Ori Kam (viola), Kyril Zlotnikov (cello) (Harmonia Mundi)
Tokyo String Quartet (Peter Oundjian, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Sadao Harada (cello) (BMG)
Végh Quartet (Sándor Végh, Sándor Zöldy (violins), Georges Janzer (viola) & Paul Szabo (cello) (Valois)

There are some highly enjoyable versions here. The two I returned to most were from the Jerusalem and Tokyo quartets, each one bringing out the sunny nature of the work with its many and varied inventions.

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 1800 Gyrowetz Divertissement Op.50

Next up String Quartet in B flat major Op.18/6