Listening to Beethoven #24 – 6 Variations on a Swiss Song WoO54


Swiss and German folksong collector Johann Friedrich Reichardt (left, picture by
Carl Traugott Riedel) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

6 Variations on a Swiss Song WoO 64 for piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 3′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme is a 17th-century Swiss song, Dursli and Babeli – which appears in the collections of old Swiss and German folk tunes, made by composers such as Reichardt, Herder and Müller. It is a simple but catchy tune that bears a resemblance to a hymn that followed a century or so later, This joyful Eastertide. The tune was a favourite of Goethe, who is said to have described it as ‘a charming story of peasant love’.

Background and Critical Reception

Very little is written about these variations. The short note for Cécile Ousset’s recording declares the variations ‘do not go any further than mere charm’. Meanwhile Barry Cooper, writing in his guide for the DG complete Beethoven edition, describes the variations as ‘relatively simple an unadventurous’.

It seems these variations are popular student pieces, the standard suitable for developing pianists and markedly different from the Righini variations we heard very recently.

Thoughts

The source material does at least ensure a memorable melody for the short series of variations, which feel more like a set of unfinished doodles. The hymn-like main theme slips into the minor key for a little while, its second variation given a sideways glance by the composer as he does so. There is a nice bit of humour here at times, but the piece does ultimately feel lightweight, more of a student exercise.

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Three fine recordings – but again it is Ousset who emerges with a greater poise, and less of a tendency to indulge than Pletnev. Ronald Brautigam takes a typically quick tempo in his sprightly version.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Ronald Brautigam

 

Also written in 1792 Hummel Piano Trio no.1 in E flat major Op.12

Next up Prüfung des Küssens

Listening to Beethoven #22 – 24 Variations on ‘Venni amore’ WoO 65

Vincenzo Righini (left) and the young Beethoven (unattributed picture)
Dedication Countess of Hatzfeld
Duration 23′

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s second set of variations for the keyboard is very different from the first. The Dressler Variations, his first published work, were effectively testing the water to see what the young composer could come up with. This set of 24 variations is a different animal entirely. Alexander Thayer‘s biography of Beethoven tells the story of its genesis:

‘Kapellmeister Vincenzo Righini, a colleague of Sterkel in the service of the Elector of Mainz, had published Dodeci Ariette, one of which, Vieni (venni) Amore was a melody with five vocal variations, to the same accompaniment. Beethoven, taking this melody as his theme, had composed, dedicated to the Countess of Hatzfeld and published 24 variations for the pianoforte upon it. Some of these were very difficult, and Sterkel now expressed his doubts if the author himself could play them.’

He could indeed – and ‘went on with a number of others no less difficult, all to the great surprise of the listeners’. Harold Truscott is impressed. Writing in The Beethoven Companion, he declares the work ‘has a strong claim to be considered Beethoven’s earliest masterpiece’. He goes further, noting anticipations of Brahms’s variation technique, and a fade out of ‘imaginative power which would not be out of place in mature Beethoven and which also anticipates one of Schumann’s favourite coda devices’.

Thoughts

Truscott is right. This piece takes Beethoven’s writing for piano up several levels, both technically and emotionally. Righini’s them has basic outlines, which are perfect for the variation treatment – and Beethoven wastes no time in getting to work with his interpretations on the theme, picking up momentum quickly.

The sheer variety of his variations are dazzling – the trills of the fourth variation, the triplet figures of the fifth and the free, almost improvised nature of the eighth. There is plenty of humour here too, Beethoven enjoying the chromatic ninth variation, but darkening the mood considerably with two minor key variations. The first (no.12 is mysterious and uncertain; the second powers through the octaves.

The fascinating drama continues, with every variation raising the question in the listener’s mind as to what might be next! In no.14 Beethoven plays around with the tempo and mood, almost as though the composer is scratching his head as he considers his next move. In no.15, an emphatic volley of notes, we find out. Towards the end the drama heightens again, with the impish no.20, the big octaves of no.21 and the flowing no.22. The profound thoughts of the 23rd are blown out of the water by an almost violent final variation, but despite the virtuosity and drama, Beethoven opts for a quiet and thoughtful coda which is all the more meaningful and leaves the listener lost in thought.

This set of variations is a fascinating and totally absorbing journey, with thrills, spills and unexpected turns on its route. Beethoven’s unpredictable streak has truly arrived.

Recordings used

Ronald Brautigam (BIS), Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG)

Three excellent recordings – though Mikhail Pletnev’s is a little more mannered with a clipped delivery of the main theme and some interesting ideas of playing around with the tempo of the music. Most are in line with Beethoven’s thoughts – but even he is not quite as impressive as Cécile Ousset, who delivers a compelling performance of virtuosity and thoughtful insight. The quiet passages of her playing will have you leaning in towards the speaker.

Meanwhile Ronald Brautigam is typically incisive with his fortepiano version, and the flicks he achieves on the second variation are really well done, but he is a bit breathless at times, finishing almost two minutes clear of the others.

Spotify links

Ronald Brautigam

Cécile Ousset

Mikhail Pletnev

Also written in 1791 Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major K622

Next up Ritterballet WoO 1 (piano version)

Listening to Beethoven #1 – 9 Variations on a March by Dressler


Ernst Dressler (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

9 Variations on a March by Dressler WoO 63 for piano (1782, Beethoven aged 12)

Dedication not known
Duration 7′ (13’30 with repeats included)

Listen

What’s the theme like?

Dressler’s theme is serious in tone, and foursquare. The march is a slow one but it gives plenty of room for the young composer to work with his source material.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven’s first published work was released into the public domain when the composer was barely 12 years old. Its release was accompanied with a glowing reference from his teacher at the time, Christian Neefe. Jan Swafford takes up the story in his recent Beethoven biographer. ‘He plays the clavier very skillfully and with power, reads at sight very well, and…plays chiefly The Well Tempered Clavier of Sebastian Bach…He (Beethoven) has had nine variations for the pianoforte engraved in Mannheim. This youthful genius…would surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were he to continue as he has begun.’

The variation form was a good way of exercising students; seeing how inventive they could be when given a theme as a starting point. Talking with Arcana about the Dressler variations, pianist Cyprien Katsaris notes how “this piece is variations by a kid, and it could be considered in the beginning a little bit boring. His teacher probably told him to keep the same tempo, but I think there is a probability that if Beethoven played that piece as an adult he would play it in a different way to when he was under the guidance of that teacher. What a pity we didn’t have recordings earlier!”

Barry Cooper‘s booklet note for DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven notes how variations of the time were usually in a major key, and the adoption of C minor ‘feels like something of a statement’. It is a key we will traverse many more times as Beethoven’s portfolio unfolds. Swafford interprets the choice of C minor and its serious material ‘might form a memorial for the boy’s recently passed, still-lamented teacher and friend Franz Georg Rovantini‘, and that the final variation is a ‘triumph over sorrow’.

Thoughts

The young Beethoven takes the relatively basic Dressler theme and works nine variations from it, beginning in serious mood but gradually loosening his approach to explore different techniques.

For eight of the nine variations we keep the darker colour of the minor key, staying true to the mood of the theme but gradually adding more to it, with a few grace notes (variation 1), relatively polite sequential figures (2), then extra arpeggios in the middle parts (3), and chromatic inflections in the right hand (4). The fifth variation is more playful.

The sense of a composer running with greater freedom is clear, as the fifth variation is really let off the leash, the right hand roaming as it wishes. Variation six exchanges trills and more playful melodies between the two hands, while the seventh is in lilting triple time. The eighth feels like music we have heard already, with flowing arpeggios. Until now all variations have remained in the minor key, but this heightens the moment Beethoven switches to the major for the last variation, a terrific flurry of notes for the right hand which show off his technical prowess. Not many 12-year-olds could play music like this!

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), Mikhail Pletnev (DG); Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cécile Ousset includes all of Beethoven’s repeat markings, so each half of each variation is repeated, the piece extended to 13 minutes. Hers is a gracious account, brilliantly executed at the end.
Pletnev is very straight-faced initially, and plays around with the tempo a good deal, but goes for broke at the end to make the final variation sound like a piece of C.P.E. Bach.
Katsaris, including revised material by Beethoven, is in a room with a good deal of reverberation, heightening the serious theme and quite deliberate initially – but with terrific excitement generated in the fifth and final variations.

Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Cécile Ousset

Cyprien Katsaris

 

Also written in 1782 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up Schilderung eines Mädchens

You can read Cyprien Katsaris’ full interview about Beethoven with Arcana soon.