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′


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.


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 #93 – 6 Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’

The  Portaits of Giovanni Paisiello (left) and the young Beethoven

6 Variations on ‘Nel cor piu non mi sento’ WoO 70 for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 6′


What’s the theme like?

Paisiello’s theme has a nice lilt to it, with a softly undulating accompaniment set in the left hand of the piano. The mood is amiable, set in G major. Beethoven pauses deliberately near the end, creating some very valid, stage-derived tension!

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven operated with a remarkably quick turnaround for these variations, which explains their instinctive feel. Barry Cooper, writing in the booklet notes for DG’s Complete Beethoven Edition, tells of how ‘a lady whom he greatly admired once told him she used to own a set of variations on this theme but had lost them’. Beethoven ‘promptly composed his set for her and delivered them the next morning! He could, when necessary, compose extremely fast despite his reputation as a slow and painstaking worker’.


The six variations have an easy flow, the left and right hands often exchanging their melodic lines to keep things on the move. Beethoven’s first three variations move along effortlessly, before a slightly sorrowful fourth in the minor key, where the pronounced pause is really evident. Throughout the emphasis is on a vocal line, staying true to the context of Paisiello’s original.

As he often does Beethoven provides a direct contrast immediately after this, with an effervescent fifth variation and similarly bright sixth. The stream of consciousness, which works as a whole rather than six parts, is wrapped up very quickly.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Mikhail Pletnev

Rudolf Buchbinder

Cécile Ousset

Pletnev takes these variations at quite a lick, showing off his technical prowess but occasionally constricting the phrasing. Buchbinder and Ousset feel more natural in this respect, and again it is Ousset who has the most natural application, staying true to the theme’s origins as a vocal melody.

Also written in 1795 Hummel Piano Sonata no.8

Next up Variations on ‘Ich hab ein kleines Hüttchen nur’

Listening to Beethoven #79 – Rondo a capriccio in G major, ‘Rage over a lost penny’

2020 Germany €20 Silver Coin Issue Ludwig van Beethoven 250 Years

Rondo a capriccio in G major Op.129, ‘Rage over a lost penny’ for piano (1795, Beethoven aged 24)

Dedication not known
Duration 5’30”


Background and Critical Reception

The title of this piece is wholly misleading. The Rondo a capriccio element is certainly correct, but, as Barry Cooper writes in his notes for Deutsche Grammophon’s New Complete Beethoven Edition, ‘the popular title The Rage Over the Lost Penny is on the original manuscript, though not in Beethoven’s handwriting, and it is not clear whether he sanctioned it’.

The late opus number, 129, suggests it is contemporaneous with Beethoven’s late string quartets – but the piece was completed in 1795 and not published in his lifetime. Cooper writes of how it was ‘found amongst his papers after his death in a not-quite-finished state. Diabelli bought the manuscript, made the necessary additions and published it shortly afterwards’.

Alan Tyson, writing in The Beethoven Companion, notes how it was rare for Beethoven to leave works unpublished if he felt they would have musical or monetary value. ‘A small work like the Rondo A Capriccio’, he writes, ‘may have been kept for concert use and then overlooked when he had outgrown it and had lost interest in it’.


Irrespective of whether or not he coined the nickname (sorry – Ed!) Beethoven’s powers of description are right on point here. The use of a Rondo form (where the main ‘A’ theme keeps recurring as the main part of an A-B-A-C-A-B-A structure) is ideal, as through it the intense frustration of losing something, and not finding it despite repetitive searching, can be fully expressed.

It is a catchy theme, too, suitable for playing at high speed – and as the piece goes on so the speed becomes a whirlwind, the music amusing but also potentially annoying! Again Beethoven’s writing captures the moment perfectly in what is one of his most memorable short piano pieces.

Recordings used and Spotify links

Artur Schnabel (Naxos)

Anatol Ugorski (Deutsche Grammophon)

Evgeny Kissin (BMG)

Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

Artur Schnabel gives a sparkling performance, the quickness of the fingers an absolute delight as the lost penny eludes capture! The final page is brilliantly chaotic, and the recorded sound – remarkably for a 1937 recording made in Abbey Road Studio 3 – stands up really well. Anatol Ugorski is nearly a minute longer but is still excellent in his execution, with crisp digital sound – which Evgeny Kissin also benefits from in a technically superb account. Ronald Brautigam, on a fortepiano, gives a thrilling performance.

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 1795 Clementi 2 Piano Sonatas and 2 Capriccios, Op. 34

Next up Sextet in E flat major Op.81b

Listening to Beethoven #43 – Rondino in E flat major

The Lobkowitzplatz, Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (18th century)

Rondino in E flat major WoO 25 for wind octet (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons) (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Duration 6’30”


Background and Critical Reception

The Rondino is thought to have been written around the same time as the Octet for wind Op.103, and may even be a discarded movement from it, given that it shares the same key (E flat major), instrumentation and composition period (either very late in the Bonn period or 1793).

It is for a pair each of oboes, clarinets, horns and bassoons, with the horn writing in particular coming in for special mention. Martin Harlow, writing in the booklet notes for the Albion Ensemble’s recording on Hyperion, describes the Rondino as ‘a marvellously economical work whose brevity belies the intensity of invention contained within’.

The Unheard Beethoven website’s entry for the work notes its close relationship to Mozart’s Serenades, ‘at one level with his masterpiece for the same instruments’ and sharing the same instrumentation. The conclusion is that the Rondino is an ‘amazing, early masterpiece’.


How lovely it is to hear the sonorities of a wind ensemble in the Beethoven listening. This is a lovely piece, the strong implication being that the composer has already mastered writing for such a group but this is the first we properly hear of it.

The title (given by the publisher after Beethoven’s death, possibly) conjures up ideas of a light, frivolous piece, but in the event this Rondino is a tender affair. Its main theme is an attractive one, and lingers in the memory, but the middle sections are elegiac and quite sorrowful, moving as they do through minor keys.

The colours are beautiful, the use of horns particularly masterful – Beethoven seemingly one of the first to use mutes on the instrument as a form of expression. It may be small, but this is a perfectly formed and rather gorgeous piece.

Recordings used

Netherlands Wind Ensemble (Deutsche Grammophon)
L’Archibudelli (Sony Vivarte)
Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble (Warner Classics)
The Albion Ensemble (Helios)

Four fine versions here. The L’Archibudelli version – on instruments of the period – feels slightly woolly with its recorded sound to begin with, before the ensemble passages blossom. It is taken at a slower tempo than the other versions. Both the Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble and The Albion Ensemble are notable for their affection for the piece.

Spotify links


Netherlands Wind Ensemble

Sabine Meyer Bläserensemble

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 1793 Haydn Andante with variations in F minor HXVII:6(

Next upOctet in E flat major Op.103

Listening to Beethoven #42 – 12 Variations on ‘Se vuol ballare’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

12 Variations on Mozart’s aria ‘Se vuol ballare’ WoO40 for piano and violin (1793, Beethoven aged 22)

Dedication Elenore von Breuning
Duration 12’30”


What’s the theme like?

Mozart’s theme is from the first act of Le nozze de Figaro – Se vuol ballare being an aria for Figaro himself, on discovering the count’s schemes.

Background and Critical Reception

‘I should never have written down this kind of piece, had I not already noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporize of an evening would note down on the following day several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own. Well, as I foresaw that their pieces would soon be published, I resolved to forestall these people’.

Beethoven’s statement, made in a letter in 1794, confirms he was now in Vienna – and already attracting great interest. In the covering note with the piece, he also makes reference to the extra prominence for the violin in the work – now seen alongside the piano. ‘The variations will be rather difficult to play, and particularly the trills in the coda. But this must not intimidate or discourage you. For the composition is so arranged that you need only play the trill and can leave out the other notes, since these appear in the violin part as well.’

Nigel Fortune, writing in The Beethoven Companion, suggests Beethoven included these features in his work to embarrass the pianists who tried to play his music, giving them music of extra difficulty.


Beethoven’s statement of the theme is unusual, choosing to announce the tune through pizzicato violin with the softest of piano accompaniments. In this way he imitates a guitar, mirroring the way the tune is first heard in the opera.

As the variations unfold the piano takes the lead, particularly in a thrilling fourth variation which has the mood of a Bach sonata with its bubbling counterpoint, passed back and forward between the instruments. The fifth variation enjoys subtle humour with the figure of a trill exchanged, but then the mood darkens.

The sixth variation moves to the minor key, and the violin plays a mournful melody as the piano adopts a slow, bell-like toll. The roles are reversed for the seventh variation, the music still in the minor key but with a few longer dissonances. Soon the sun returns, the music flowing forward through variations eight and nine, the latter generating terrific energy in its fast moving writing for piano alone, the violin taking a brief rest.

The final variations find the instruments close together, the music flowing and in affirmative mood, but then in the coda Beethoven unexpectedly moves into a new key (D major), which takes the listener by surprise and opens up the music completely. This is however shortlived, the false ‘departure’ quickly coming home to rest with a rather touching finish led by soft trills on the piano.

Beethoven’s first Viennese work is a strong statement, and a very enjoyable one at that. Anyone wishing to capture his music on paper would have had a hard time, for his music is starting to show invention and imagination at every turn.

Recordings used

Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Wilhelm Kempff (piano) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Takako Nishizaki (violin), Jenő Jandó (piano) (Naxos)

Menuhin and Kempff are delightful in this piece, playing as though they were at the opera themselves. The minor key variation has a strong pull. Takako Nishizaki and Jenő Jandó are excellent, too – they pull the tempo around less but that works well in the longer scheme of things.

Spotify links

Yehudi Menuhin, Wilhelm Kempff

Takako Nishizaki, Jenő Jandó

Also written in 1793 Haydn Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:32

Next up Octet in E flat major Op.103