Listening to Beethoven #40 – 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (left) and the young Ludwig van Beethoven

13 Variations on Dittersdorf’s air ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’ for piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 12′


What’s the theme like?

Dittersdorf’s theme is taken from an opera, Das rothe Käppchen. In profile it is similar to the Swiss song on which Beethoven wrote six simple variations, not long before completing this work.

Background and Critical Reception

Having been rather dismissive of the entertaining Waldstein variatioms, booklet writer Jean-Charles Hoffelé is more forthcoming on their successor. They ‘make the most of the popular ballad from the opera Das rothe Käppchen. The dominant-tonic interval is exploited to the full to create a tension that is resolved only in the final march’.

Barry Cooper, writing in the notes for the DG Complete Beethoven Edition, gets to the nub of Beethoven’s wit. ‘The most striking effect is the sudden and prolonged rest in the middle of the theme. Beethoven exploits the humourous effect of this rest by creating witty surprises after it in almost every variation, so that the flow of the music is not merely interrupted by the rest but is diverted from its previous course by what follows. In the final variation, a march, there is once again a witty surprise after the rest – for the first time the music just carries on as if nothing had happened. The joke is that there is no joke!


On first hearing it’s tempting to think the pianist has made a mistake when playing this theme. This is the ‘prolonged rest’ that Barry Cooper talks about, and once you know it’s there the ear listens out for it in each variation.

If it was ever played in public this trick could potentially have brought the house down, and when listening it certainly raises a smile – especially as Beethoven’s approaches to this bit of silence are so wildly varied. Silence, of course, would become a key element of Beethoven’s style as it progressed, and this is the first explicit example of it used prominently in a theme.

The variations sparkle, Beethoven again showing off what he can do with busy figurations for the right hand especially. The minor key variation (the sixth) is unexpectedly dark after the major key brilliance – while the ninth alternates between both moods, a flurry of notes suddenly coming to a sombre pause when Beethoven’s trick once again reveals itself.

Once again Beethoven turns entertainer, and in this case prankster – but beneath the notes he is continuing to explore different techniques and ever-more demanding writing for the piano. As a result there is much of note to find in this piece.

Recordings used

Cécile Ousset (Eloquence), John Ogdon (EMI/Warner Classics), Ronald Brautigam (BIS)

A fascinating and varied trio of versions here. Ousset has a winning elegance from the start, but fully embraces Beethoven’s invention and instinct as the variations progress. John Ogdon brings a mischievous element right from the start, with some appealing, jaunty phrasing, while Brautigam gives a charismatic account. Three excellent versions that complement each other.

Spotify links

Cécile Ousset

John Ogdon

track 34 onwards on this album:

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 #38 – Duo for two flutes in G major

A Man in Eighteenth Century Dress with a Flute, in His Study by (Henry Hetherington Emmerson) (1877)

Duo for two flutes in B flat major WoO 26 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

1 Allegro con brio
2 Menuetto quasi allegretto

Dedication ‘for friend Degenharth’
Duration 6′


Background and Critical Reception

This is the first of Beethoven’s chamber works not to include the piano – though it was not published until after his death. The dedication, ‘for friend Degenharth’, is to a lawyer, a member of Beethoven’s close circle of friends. It has prompted speculation that the piece may have been a commission or a present.

Either way, it is a short work in two movements of roughly equal length, and continues the close affinity Beethoven had with the flute at this time. Technical demands are thought to be few (according to at any rate!) so the music is suitable for most ability levels.


The two movements of the Duo are charming. The melodic parts are closely intertwined in the first section, like butterflies dancing in a breeze. Beethoven shifts to the minor key half way through, as though intending to move off on a set of variations. The music has a more graceful feel at this point, but then the dancing butterflies return.

The instruments stay close for the second movement, where the second flute has a simple arpeggio ‘Alberti’ figuration. There is more of a dance form evident here, in triple time.

Beethoven’s domestic side is on show here, with communal music making the main aim. As a result there is nothing too challenging here, but the charms are many.

Recordings used

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal (DG)
Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo (Naxos)

Gallois and Rampal are brilliant together, and it proves almost impossible to tell their instruments apart at times!

Spotify links

Patrick Gallois, Jean-Pierre Rampal

Patrick Gallois, Kazunori Seo

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 1792 Haydn Piano Trio in G major HXV:32

Next up 8 Variations on a theme by Count Waldstein

Listening to Beethoven #31 – Flute Sonata in B flat major

Gentleman walking a hound in a wooded landscape (Unknown, German school, late 18th century

Flute Sonata in B flat major Anh.4 (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication unknown
Duration 25′


Background and Critical Reception

This substantial four-movement work was found amongst Beethoven’s papers after his death, and was not published until 1906. Despite its location, there are a number of doubts over the authorship of the piece – which appears not to have been in Beethoven’s own handwriting, according to biographer Alexander Thayer.

Barry Cooper, writing in the ‘Rarities’ booklet accompanying DG’s New Complete Edition of Beethoven, makes several useful points. He notes a ‘few awkward moments that could betray inexperience’, and says ‘its authenticity cannot yet be excluded completely, if it is a very early work’. Yet in the other corner there are ‘far fewer articulation markings than in even Beethoven’s earliest known works’, and the scribe ‘was also the composer’, which for Cooper offers the final proof that Beethoven was ultimately not involved.

If it was indeed Beethoven who wrote this work it is thought it would date between 1790 and 1792 – which would plausibly make the dedicatee the flautist son of the Westerholt-Gysenberg family, who Beethoven had included as part of his equally substantial Trio for Flute, Bassoon and Piano a few years earlier.


This substantial piece is quite hyperactive in its first few minutes, when it feels like there are too many notes, but the mood is bright and positive. The music gradually settles, passing through quite an adventurous development section where the dynamic changes, from quite a pastoral mood which then darkens as Beethoven shifts into the minor key.

The second movement, a Polacca, sets out on a strident path, in the same key of B flat major. Both instruments are close together, complementing each other’s melodic movements. The theme is a bit more rustic but the polonaise attributes are not obvious.

The slow movement brings the music to rest, and offers a change of scenery in E flat major. The final movement finds the players close again for a bright theme on which the players then expand with four variations. Even the minor key variation, the third, doesn’t really cloud the sunny exterior too much. By Beethoven’s standards so far it does feel like a relatively standard theme and variations, but they end with a flourish and a relatively restful coda.

Recordings used

Michel Debost (flute), Christian Ivaldi (piano) (Warner Classics)
Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Eric Le Sage (piano) (Auvidis Valois)
Severino Gazzelloni (flute), Bruno Canino (piano) (DG)

A trio of excellent performances here, each of which serves the sonata very well. The top choice by a whisker would be the ever-stylish Emmanuel Pahud and Eric Le Sage, though Severino Gazzelloni and Bruno Canino run them close with their close-knit partnership, which is particularly beautiful in the slow movement.

Spotify links

Michel Debost, Christian Ivaldi

Emmanuel Pahud, Eric Le Sage

Severino Gazzelloni, Bruno Canino

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 1792 Haydn Symphony no.98 in B flat major

Next up Primo amore piacer del ciel

Listening to Beethoven #18 – Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88

The Coronation of Leopold II at Bratislava (1790) Austrian School, 18th century, Mestske Galerie, Bratislava

Cantata on the Accession of Emperor Leopold II WoO88 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Leopold II
Text Severin Anton Averdonk
Duration 23’30”


Chen Reiss sings the flagship aria Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese (Flow, tears of joy, flow), the second number in the score:

Background and Critical Reception

When Beethoven received his commission for the Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, he was also enlisted to help celebrate the accession of his successor, Leopold II, again with text from Severin Anton Averdonk.. In the event neither piece fulfilled their function, due mainly to time constraints but also – possibly – due to the difficulty of learning and rehearsing new and challenging music for the time.

Thus the cantata was not heard in Beethoven’s lifetime, not emerging until the 1880s. Lewis Lockwood argues for its acceptance as a positive, optimistic counterpart to the tragedy of the Joseph cantata, anticipating in this early period Beethoven’s later way of contrasting two opposed expressive domains in consecutive works in the same genre.

He also notes that ‘though less majestic, it possesses the expressive chorus Stürzet nieder, Millionen (Prostrate yourselves, O millions) which textually associates with Schiller’s Ode to Joy and the Ninth Symphony by means of its passage asking the question ‘Stürzet nieder, Millionen?’ (‘O ye millions, do you fall prostrate?’)

One aria in particular stands out – the substantial Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese (Flow, tears of joy, flow), written for soprano soloist with key parts for flute and cello, drawn from the orchestra. In his notes for the Hyperion recording of the piece, Nicholas Marston suggests Beethoven’s operatic experience led him to include this ensemble number.


The Cantata on the Accession of Emperor II is a much slighter work than its predecessor mourning the death of Emperor Joseph II, being half the length of that piece. Nor does it quite sustain the high level of feeling Beethoven poured into that work. Having said that it comfortably fulfils its function as a celebratory piece, and demonstrates once again how the composer is fully at home working with larger forces.

There is a strong sense of occasion from the start, through the hushed delivery from both soprano and chorus. The music then swells into more obvious pomp and celebration, now in a ‘pure’ C major as opposed to the fraught C minor of the Joseph cantata. This is surely not a coincidence, and as Marston also notes, it anticipates a similar tactic used in the movement from darkness to light in the Fifth Symphony. Fliese, Wonnezahren, fliese, the big aria, pushes forward with an optimistic look to the future rather than the caught under the heavy tread of the past. It includes some sparkling writing for the soprano soloist that culminates with a high E flat towards the end.

Later the choral writing is more red-blooded, setting the translated text ‘Look up to the lord of thrones who brought you this salvation’. All soloists and high choir are united in their praise of the new leader.

It is a shame for Beethoven that this music was not heard at the time of Leopold’s accession, for while this work does not quite reach the levels of the Joseph cantata it is still a fine and perfectly functioning celebration for the new emperor.


Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)

Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)

Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

As with the Joseph Cantata, recordings of Beethoven’s ceremonial music for Leopold II were thin on the ground until the release of Matthew Best‘s account with the Corydon Singers and Orchestra by Hyperion in 1996. It is an excellent performance, capped by exceptional female soloists in Janice Watson and Jean Rigby.

Again the performance from Christian Thielemann for DG is a glossier affair, but it is very fine indeed, and Charlotte Margiono is a very fine soprano soloist.

The recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos delivers a strong impact too, with full bodied choral singing.

Spotify links

The Hyperion version conducted by Matthew Best is not available on Spotify but clips can be heard on the Hyperion website here

Christian Thielemann (tracks 8-13)

Leif Segerstam (tracks 8-13)

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 1790 Mozart Così fan tutte

Next up Klage

Listening to Beethoven #16 – Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87

Joseph II (right) with his brother Peter Leopold, then Grand Duke of Tuscany, later Emperor Leopold II Painting by Pompeo Batoni, 1769, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II WoO87 for soloists, choir and orchestra (1790, Beethoven aged 19)

Dedication Emperor Joseph II
Duration 41′

Background and Critical Reception

Emperor Joseph II reformed Vienna in his decade in power, but in that time between 1780 and 1790 Bonn was very much under his dominion. Beethoven had visited Vienna briefly, but had to return to Bonn early due to his mother’s fatal illness. However because Joseph II’s brother was Maximilian Franz, Elector of Cologne, Beethoven was closer than many through his musical links.

On the Emperor’s death Beethoven was commissioned to set a text by Severin Anton Averdonk in commemoration, yet the resulting cantata was never to be performed in his lifetime. A planned performance in 1791 did not take place, seemingly due to the complexity of the music and the time (two and a half weeks) available to write and rehearse it. That Beethoven finished it was impressive enough, but once the moment had passed it would have been difficult to secure further performances.

The works remained unknown until the 1880s – when we have, as Lockwood describes, ‘an astonished letter of praise from Brahms, who said of the Joseph cantata, “It is Beethoven through and through”. He was later impressed by its “noble pathos…its feeling and imagination, the intensity, perhaps violent in its expression”.

Jan Swafford suggests Beethoven would not have been too disappointed at this, and points to several unusual qualities about the piece. It is a funeral cantata that ‘does not mention God until the third number, and then only in passing; only toward the end does it give lip service to paradise and immortality. In this cantata death is nothing but tragic, and Joseph’s main immortality is his legacy on earth, not his bliss in heaven.

Beethoven writers are united in their view of the Cantata’s important. Lewis Lockwood sees both this cantata and its successor, the Cantata for the Accession of Leopold II, as ‘the capstones of the Bonn years’. Swafford notes how Beethoven pulls out all the stops in his efforts to impress. ‘If he pulled too many, that is a sign of his youth, but already the expression is powerful, the handling of the orchestra effective and expressive the voice unmistakably his own. As a sign of that dynamism, he mined ideas from this cantata again and again in later years’.

The Joseph cantata anticipates important elements in Leonore of 1805, the first version of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. While discussing this, Swafford praises how ‘he could also resurrect a beautifully sculpted melody that perfectly fitted both cantata and opera’.


This is a very different Beethoven. His response to setting the solemn text proclaiming Joseph’s death is so profound it is tempting to assume he is channeling his own experiences of bereavement into the score.

We hear Beethoven’s first orchestral ventures in the very solemn opening pages, a hushed introduction that calls to mind the desolation of Haydn’s representation of chaos from his oratorio The Creation. The chorus gives an equally weighty account of grief, reacting as it is to the text proclaiming and repeating ‘Joseph the great is dead’. In response to this sombre beginning Beethoven writes music of impressive heft for the soprano, then the bass voice sings triumphantly of Joseph’s triumph in ‘defeating the monster’. The orchestra gets caught up in the excitement, while the pacing of solo vocal flourishes (recitatives) and general momentum feels slightly in thrall to Handel.

The soprano brings warmth with an aria Da stiegen die Menschen an’s Licht (Then mankind climbed into the light), which is a thoughtful and ultimately radiant aria with choral backing. Another soprano aria, Hier schlummert seinen stillen Frieden (Here slumbers in his quiet peace the great sufferer), feels like the emotional centre of the piece, a really substantial slow movement that leads up to a restatement of the opening choral passages. Here the tragedy of death takes root once again, the desolation complete – and all in Beethoven’s now-familiar ‘tragic’ key of C minor.

The Cantata on the death of Emperor Joseph II feels like the most substantial Beethoven piece to date by some distance, and the most openly emotional too. With it Beethoven joins his idols Haydn and Mozart in the ability to write for large forces without ever appearing daunted by the prospect. Ultimately it feels like a fitting memorial to his mother, whether that was intended or not.


Charlotte Margiono (soprano), Veronica Verebely (soprano), William Shimell (bass), Ulrike Helzel (contralto), Clemens Bieber (tenor), Chorus and Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Christian Thielemann (DG)
Janice Watson (soprano), Jean Rigby (contralto), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), José Van Dam (bass), Corydon Singers and Orchestra / Matthew Best (Hyperion)
Juha Kotilainen (bass), Reetta Haavisto (soprano), Chorus Cathedralis Aboensis, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra / Leif Segerstam (Naxos)

Recordings of the cantata were thin on the ground until 1996, when Matthew Best and the Corydon Singers and Orchestra made a landmark release for Hyperion. Best’s use of a harpsichord in the ‘continuo’ role dates the piece, heightening its progression from the music of Gluck, Haydn and Mozart. He does much to inhabit the drama and is helped by excellent soloists, soprano Janice Watson hitting superlative heights and José van Dam giving a sonorous contribution as bass. The chorus are also excellent.

Christian Thielemann followed soon after for DG’s complete Beethoven edition of 1997, and his account is used on their big box this year. It is superbly paced and appropriately weighty, a little sleek in places but really getting to the tragic nub of the work. He achieves a hushed intensity from the start, and never lets up – with Charlotte Margiono imperious as soprano soloist.

A recent version from Leif Segerstram for Naxos offers stiff competition, a dramatic interpretation with excellent soloists in Reetta Haavisto and Juha Kotilainen.

Spotify links

Christian Thielemann

Leif Segerstam

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 1789 Haydn String Quartets Op.64 nos.1-3

Next up Elegie auf den Tod eines Pudels (Elegy on the death of a poodle)