Listening to Beethoven #39 – 8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein


Count Waldstein (left) and Ludwig van Beethoven aged approximately 25.

8 Variations on a Theme by Count Waldstein WoO 67 for piano duet (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known, but presumed to be Count Waldstein
Duration 8′

Listen

What’s the theme like?

The theme sounds quite quaint and a little rickety on the fortepiano. Its alternations between major and minor harmonies give it a bittersweet flavour.

Background and Critical Reception

This is another piece from Beethoven’s last days in Bonn that was not published in his lifetime – and another that has almost completely bypassed the writings of the composer’s scholars. Keith Anderson, writing booklet notes for the engaging release of Beethoven’s music for piano duet on Grand Piano Records, notes the piece was picked up by the publisher Nikolaus Simrock, but without initial consultation with the composer himself.

By now Beethoven was using the ‘theme and variations’ format as a way of flexing his muscles as a composer, trying out new and – in some cases – ever more daring feats. No doubt when making music with friends he got acquainted with the idea of piano duets – Mozart especially had written a number of pieces for the format – and this was his first, quite extravagant work for four hands.

Waldstein is recorded on Wikipedia as a ‘fairly good pianist and composer’ – so it is tempting to think Beethoven wrote the second part with him in mind. Certainly some of the prompting is easier for the second pianist, as the first part goes wild at the top end of the keyboard!

Thoughts

Beethoven has some fun with these variations, which seem to have been designed for lighthearted performance among friends. Certainly if the fourth variation is anything to go by, with its detached swoops from high down to low and back again. The second and fifth have a torrent of notes in the right hand, while the sixth is also pretty outrageous, an outgoing display piece. The seventh is po-faced, with a syncopation here and there disrupting the rhythms enjoyably, while the eighth variation switches to C minor, rich in harmonic flavour.

Then there is a really pronounced pause, Beethoven looking round at his audience with a tease or two – before a sizeable coda which could really be called a Fantasia. Where will the music go? Beethoven starts to go off at a number of tangents, recalling the unpredictable methods of C.P.E. Bach. The speeds vary wildly, as do the moods – and just as the direction seems uncertain, we head back to the main key through a series of heavy chords. Beethoven refuses to finish with a flourish though, a soft chord all he needs to bring the house down.

Ultimately this piece has a lot of signposts for the watching public, and they surely would have loved it in private performance – if indeed it got to see the light of day. It is a good deal of fun.

Recordings used

Amy & Sara Hamann (Grand Piano)
Arthur & Lucas Jussen (Deutsche Grammophon)

This piece is a riot in the hands of the Hamann sisters, who appreciate the rougher edges the fortepiano provides. They use this to their advantage, bringing out the contrasts between the variations. Their album of piano duets presents the pieces first on the fortepiano, and then on a modern Yamaha, giving the listener a great chance to compare and contrast. The modern version is cleaner and less ‘on the edge’, but still very entertaining.

Alongside this pair the Jussen brothers sound rather more chaste, though they too have some fun once the variations are into their stride.

Spotify links

Amy & Sara Hamann (Fortepiano after J.A. Stein, 1784)

Amy & Sara Hamann (modern Yamaha)

Arthur & Lucas Jussen

Also written in 1792 Gelinek 6 Variations on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen

Next up 13 Variations on ‘Es war einmal ein alter Mann’

Listening to Beethoven #23 – Ritterballet WoO 1 (piano version)


Beethoven and Count von Waldstein. Artist unknown, Alamy stock photo

Dedication Count Waldstein
Duration 13′

1. March
2. Deutscher Gedsang: Allegro moderato
3. Jagdlied: Allegretto
4. Romanze: Andantino
5. Kriegslied: Allegro assai con brio
6. Trinklied: Allegro con brio – Trio
7. Deutscher Tanz: Walzer
8. Coda: Allegro vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

We have already examined (and enjoyed) Beethoven’s Ritterballet in its orchestral form. It is the piece he was prepared to ‘hand over’ to Count Waldstein… but it is clear that the composer thought highly enough of the piece to transcribe it himself for solo piano. Beethoven retains the same format and order as the orchestral version, and the arrangement appears to be a completely faithful one.

Thoughts

Perhaps inevitably the piano version of Ritterballet loses a little of its colour, though the March does benefit from firmer rhythmic impetus. The German Song retains its charm and memorability, but does lose a little of its dance-like poise when transferred to the keyboard.

Recordings used

Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Cyprien Katsaris clearly enjoys the Ritterballet, and its abundance of good tunes. He can’t resist the chance to make the opening March flourish, with a lively left hand part, and his ‘war’ scene is suitably dramatic too.

Spotify links

Cyprien Katsaris (Piano 21)

Also written in 1791 Mozart La clemenza di Tito

Next up 6 Variations on A Swiss Song WoO 64

Listening to Beethoven #21 – Ritterballet WoO 1


Count von Waldstein, about 1800 by Antonin Machek

Dedication Count Waldstein
Duration 13′

1. March
2. Deutscher Gedsang: Allegro moderato
3. Jagdlied: Allegretto
4. Romanze: Andantino
5. Kriegslied: Allegro assai con brio
6. Trinklied: Allegro con brio – Trio
7. Deutscher Tanz: Walzer
8. Coda: Allegro vivace

Listen

Background and Critical Reception

In which we meet the important character Count Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel von Waldstein for the first time. Waldstein arrived in Bonn in 1788 and was a companion of the Elector. He became part of the Teutonic Order, an organisation of German noblemen, and wrote this Knight’s Ballet for a 1791 meeting of the Order of Bonn. Lewis Lockwood writes that he ‘let it appear that the author of the music was Waldstein’.

Daniel Heartz writes how Gotha’s Theater-Kalender for 1792 called it ‘a characteristic ballet in old German costume…with plot and music invented by Count Waldstein. It honoured the main pastimes of our ancestors – war, hunting, courtship, carousing.’ Despite its brevity there is one particular tune that appears at regular intervals, the ‘returning German song’ as Heartz calls it.

Thoughts

Inevitably it is the melody of the German song that lives long in the memory…and our first fully fledged Beethoven earworm is a real charmer. The whole score is light on the ear, full of good humour and melody.

The Marsch, Jagdlied (Hunting Song), Trinklied (Drinking song) and Deutscher Tanz would not be out of place in a Mozart Serenade or a Haydn Divertimento, while the Kriegslied (War song) is full of bluster. Meanwhile the Romanze is short but perfectly formed, led by pizzicato strings.

Where Beethoven scores particularly highly is in following each of these contrasting sections with the ubiquitous German song, which will have softened even the most hardened features by the end.

Recordings used

Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (Simax Classics)
Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)
Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia / Béla Drahos (Naxos)

Comparisons between the Dausgaard and Karajan versions are fascinating. Karajan is bold, striding forward with weight and purpose in the Marsch and Kriegslied – but entertaining too. Dausgaard is sprightly with a leaner gait but also enjoys the subtle humour of the returning German Song – and the harmonic tricks Beethoven plays near the end. When compared to those two the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and Béla Drahos feel a little more polite, though still elegant.

Spotify links

Swedish Chamber Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard (Philips)

Berliner Philharmoniker / Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon)

Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia / Béla Drahos

Also written in 1791 Haydn Symphony no.96 in D major ‘The Miracle’

Next up 24 Variations on ‘Venni Amore’ WoO 65