Listening to Beethoven #108 – 12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Op.66

Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (right, in a portrait by Johann Georg Edlinger)

12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte Op.66 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication thought to be Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 10′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is Papageno’s aria, from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), where he expresses his desire for a wife over a glass of wine:

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s flurry of activity writing for the piano and cello in 1796 yielded four works. Alongside the two groundbreaking sonatas published as Op.5 came two sets of unpublished variations, seemingly inspired by the same dedicatee and performers. The first set had fun with music by Handel, yet – as the excellent Beethoven’s Cello book reveals – this one has slightly more serious origins.

‘In all likelihood Beethoven finished these variations after his return to Vienna’, says the book. They were not published until 1819, when they were assigned the opus number 66 – overlooked when the Fifth Symphony was published ten years earlier. The book suggests Beethoven encountered The Magic Flute in Berlin, thanks to Frederick William II’s promotion. The roots of the piece, however, appear to lie in Beethoven’s competitive edge. They may have been designed in response to Abbé Gelinek, a pupil of Beethoven’s teacher Albrechtsberger and a popular piano teacher in Vienna.

Gelinek had already completed a set of ‘frivolous piano variations’ on Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen three years earlier. ‘Beethoven seems to have taken his lead from Gelinek’s six variations by producing twelve’, says the book, ‘starting in the same manner so he could eventually ‘out-compose’ his rival’. Gelinek’s is entertaining and pleasing, but not musically adventurous; Beethoven’s more assertively tests the limits of the theme and probes the possibilities for constructing a little musical drama around it. A contemporary review questioned Beethoven’s potential as a composer, for he was guilty of unusual tonal movements and ‘harmonic harshness’.

Thoughts

Beethoven has a lot of fun here. A perky introduction of the theme sees piano and cello in level partnership, with straightforward musical punctuation. Then, as the variations proceed, both instruments really start to express themselves. The piano offers a nicely weighted variation before the cello shows off its prowess in the higher register. This is Steven Isserlis’ ‘nightmarish’ second variation, the most difficult – and it’s easy to see why, with a high register and some very tricky jumps.

Once that’s over there is a lot for the cello to enjoy in rich, expressive exchanges with the piano, Beethoven’s bubbling stream of ideas showing no sign of letting up. Some are quickfire and virtuosic, others slow and profound, showing off the expressive tone of the cellist. There are also a couple of brisk marches, the second with block chords from the piano. As often seems to be the case with these pieces, the minor-key variation (the tenth) proves pivotal, a plaintive start growing into a substantial and emotional duet with unusual, questioning harmonies. Coming out of this, the two instruments have renewed energy and finish with a flourish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

Again it is Robert Levin and Steven Isserlis who get the measure of the piece, from its light hearted moments to the deep and questioning minor key variation.

Also written in 1796 Haydn Saper vorrei se m’ami, Hob.XXVa:2

Next up Ah! Perfido Op.65

Listening to Beethoven #107 – 12 Variations on ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO 45

Ludwig van Beethoven and George Frideric Handel (right)

12 Variations on ‘See The Conquering Hero Comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus WoO45 for piano and cello (1796, Beethoven aged 26)

Dedication thought to be Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia
Duration 12′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Handel’s theme is a chorus from his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. It is a popular tune which has been turned into a popular Christian hymn, Thine be the glory.

Background and Critical Reception

Soon after the success of his two Op.5 sonatas for piano and cello, Beethoven wrote a couple of sets of variations for the same instrumental combination. The dedicatee appears once again to have been Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, with the cello-playing Duport brothers seemingly closely involved.

As Arcana discovered in a previous article, Beethoven’s love of the music of Handel ran deep. Later in his life he was to acquire Samuel Arnold’s first collected edition of Handel’s music (1787-97). Beethoven’s Cello – an excellent and compelling study of his music for the instrument by Marc D. Moskovitz and R. Larry Todd – has an engaging account of the work’s genesis.

It seems likely Beethoven attended a concert of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus in Vienna in April 1794, but that his decision to use the ‘conquering hero’ theme came later. There are accounts of a concert in Berlin in 1796, when he improvised on the theme and, as Beethoven’s Cello recounts, ‘his listeners were so moved that they crowded around him and wept’. The decision to include cello ‘is not clear, but perhaps Duport played some role’, says the book.

There are twelve variations, beginning with keyboard-led music but gradually giving greater prominence to the cello. The seventh variation features a challenging display of tumbling triplets in the cello, noted by Moskovitz and Todd as having an affinity with Duport’s sixth etude. This variation is described by Steven Isserlis as the ‘one hideously difficult’ variation of the twelve.

Thoughts

Beethoven’s inspiration flows freely in this immediately likable work. The theme is memorable, one of Handel’s best tunes, and its triumphal air makes an early impact. The two instruments have an enjoyable and lightly spiced interplay, briefly turning baleful in the fourth, minor key variation but resuming its infectious optimism immediately afterwards.

The seventh variation is indeed a nasty one for the cellist, with skittish figures dancing all over the place, but then it’s the pianist’s turn, with a thundering statement. The two resume their ‘dance’, with a triumphant tenth variation – more bravura from the piano – and a substantial coda, with some slower thoughts, which leads to a subtly joyful finish.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Adrian Brendel (cello), Alfred Brendel (piano) (Decca)
Mischa Maisky (cello), Martha Argerich (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Miklós Perényi (cello), András Schiff (piano) (ECM)
Steven Isserlis (cello), Robert Levin (fortepiano) (Hyperion)
Nicolas Altstaedt (cello), Alexandre Lonquich (piano) (Alpha)

The Spotify playlist below includes all but one of the versions listed above – with the opportunity to hear a clip from Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin’s version on the Hyperion website

There are some starry accounts of these variations, from father and son pairing Alfred and Adrian Brendel, from Martha Argerich and Mischa Maisky, and András Schiff with Miklós Perényi to name just three excellent versions. However it may not surprise you to learn that Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin pip them at the post with a thoroughly enjoyable account, recreating something of the air in the concert hall after Beethoven’s instinctive improvising in Berlin. Also highly commended is a new version from Alexander Lonquich and Nicolas Altstaedt.

Also written in 1796 Haydn Guarda qui, che lo vedrai Hob.XXVa:1

Next up 12 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ Op.66

Listening to Beethoven #106 – Adagio for mandolin and piano in E flat major WoO 43b


Joséphine de Clary, dedicatee of Beethoven’s music for mandolin and piano. Picture courtesy of the Beethoven-Haus Bonn.

Adagio in E flat major for mandolin and piano, WoO 43b (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Joséphine de Clary
Duration 5′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

The fourth and last of Beethoven’s known works for mandolin and fortepiano is a quite substantial Adagio, whose performing length is similar to the Sonatina in C minor. Its key of E flat major offers the possibility it was intended as the second movement of a bigger structure that went unfinished, as does its compatibility with the first piece. As with the other three of Beethoven’s mandolin works, it was ultimately written for Joséphine de Clary.

Thoughts

The piano takes the lead in this slow movement, which could form a complement to the Sonatina given its key of E flat major. Block chords are the support for a simple melody, the mandolin taking a supporting role at the start of what on the face of it seems like a straightforward piece. Yet here and there Beethoven mixes in some unexpected harmonies to keep the listener on their guard, and a middle section brings more energy before we revert to the original theme with the mandolin now in a higher register. It is quite a strange piece, and restless of mood.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Anna Torge (mandolin) and Gerald Hambitzer (fortepiano)

Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Michael Tsalka (fortepiano)

Julien Martineau (mandolin) and Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)

The block chords are clumped together on Tsalka’s fortepiano, as with Gerald Hambitzer on CPO, whereas the modern instrument gives much more sustain for Vanessa Benelli Moselli. Her account with Julien Martineau works best for this reason.

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 1796 Hyacinthe Jadin – 3 Piano Sonatas Op.5

Next up 12 Variations on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ for cello and piano

Listening to Beethoven #105 – Sonatina for mandolin and piano in C minor WoO 43a


Jean-Baptiste Krumpholz, brother of Wendel Krumpholz, a violin and mandolin-playing friend of Beethoven in Vienna.

Sonatina in C minor for mandolin and piano, WoO 43a (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Joséphine de Clary
Duration 4′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first two works for mandolin and piano, a C major Sonatina and the Andante con Variazoni, bear the publishing imprint WoO (work without opus) 44. The next two carry the number 43, but are thought to have been revised versions of pieces he started in Vienna, presumably for his friend Wenzel Krumpholz.

Beethoven’s mandolin music is not generally regarded as great, though it should be said his contemporaries, among them Hummel, were writing for the instrument around the same time. This Sonatina is of a similar length to its C major counterpart but uses the minor key. Despite that the music is more for private use than a work like the Piano Trio in C minor, the third of the Op.1 set.

Thoughts

The musical language is much more serious in this Sonatina compared to the previous one – though with the tones of the mandolin it does sound much more tongue in cheek. Soon the music shifts from the minor key to the major and it feels like all is well – but it is not long before Beethoven returns to the opening material, and the faces straighten once again.

There is a mournful, almost funereal air to the main theme if it is played slowly, but ultimately the colours are too light for it to linger.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Anna Torge (mandolin) and Gerald Hambitzer (fortepiano)

Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Michael Tsalka (fortepiano)

Julien Martineau (mandolin) and Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)

Alon Sariel and Michael Tsalka are quite deliberate in their account, especially at the end. Julien Martineau and Vanessa Benelli Mosell play the outer sections with tremolo at a very slow tempo, making the piece sound much more of a lament. Their central section has an appealing, graceful character. Anna Torge and Gerald Hambitzer take a similar approach.

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 1796 GyrowetzString Quartet in E flat major Op.13/3

Next up Adagio for Mandolin and Piano WoO43b

Listening to Beethoven #104 – Andante con variazioni for mandolin and piano in D major WoO 44b


Joséphine de Clary, dedicatee of Beethoven’s music for mandolin and piano. Picture courtesy of the Austrian National Library.

Andante con variazioni in D major for mandolin and piano, WoO 44b (1796, Beethoven aged 25)

Dedication Joséphine de Clary
Duration 9′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s second work for mandolin and fortepiano was also intended for Joséphine de Clary, and is a quite substantial set of six variations on a theme of unknown origin. It can also be played – unarranged – for violin and piano, which would suit Wenzel Krumpholz, the mandolin and violin player with whom Beethoven struck up a friendship in Vienna.

The piece is clearly written for some fun to be had between two players in an informal setting, and comfortably achieves its aim.

Thoughts

The theme chugs along in a friendly mood but there are hints of trouble when Beethoven adds a few spicy harmonies in the second half, providing a departure point for the piano. The first variation shows off the mandolin with some nice figurations, then the second goes towards the extremes of the instrument’s range.

Inevitably there is a doleful minor key variation, its sadness exaggerated by the plucking of the mandolin, but it is completely trumped by the following variation which skips merrily towards the end with a broad and slightly mischievous grin. A soft-hearted coda seals the deal.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Anna Torge (mandolin) and Gerald Hambitzer (fortepiano)

Alon Sariel (mandolin) and Michael Tsalka (fortepiano)

Julien Martineau (mandolin) and Vanessa Benelli Mosell (piano)

Alon Sariel and Michael Tsalka have a nice ‘give and take’ to their recording, as do Julien Martineau and Vanessa Benelli Mosell, who are a bit quicker in their version. Anna Torge and Gerald Hambitzer, in a disc from 2018 on CPO, have a lot of fun too – it’s difficult not to in a piece like this!

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 1796 GyrowetzString Quartet in C major Op.13/2

Next up Sonatina for Mandolin and Piano in C minor WoO43a