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 #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′


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!


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 #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 #37 – An Minna

Peanuts comic strip, drawn by Charles M. Schulz (c)PNTS

An Minna WoO 115 for voice and piano (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Text Anonymous
Duration 0’55”


Background and Critical Reception

Very little is known or written about this short song, but it appears to be another of the small nuggets Beethoven completed before departure from Bonn to Vienna in late 1792. The text is anonymous and even a translation could not be found online.


An Minna is a brief song indeed. Barely has it started then Beethoven wraps it up very quickly! It has a positive complexion though, despite slightly awkward phrasing (no doubt text related). The vocal line feels quite plaintive in the baritone version, and the piano has plenty of room.

Recordings used

Peter Schreier (tenor), Walter Obertz (piano)
Hermann Prey (baritone), Leonard Hokanson (piano)

As befits most of his Beethoven songs so far, Schreier does not hang about but has a nice, bright tone. Prey, in a lower ranger, is fuller and broader in scope.

Spotify links

Peter Schreier & Walter Obertz

Hermann Prey & Leonard Hokanson

Also written in 1792 Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle La Marseillaise

Next up Duo for two flutes in G major

Listening to Beethoven #36 – 14 Variations in E flat major Op.44

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

14 Variations in E flat major Op.44 for piano trio (1790-92, Beethoven aged 21)

Dedication not known
Duration 15′


What’s the theme like?

Very simple – but Dittersdorf‘s theme has comic potential, as you might expect from a humorous stage work. In the right (or wrong!) hands this could be a bit po-faced.

Background and Critical Reception

Beethoven wrote a lot of chamber music for trio in his Bonn years – and a good deal in the key of E flat major too. This piece was not published until 1804, but is thought to have been completed in 1792 before he left for Vienna. Choosing a simple theme from a comic operetta by Dittersdorf, Das rote Käppchen (‘The little red cap’), he wrote 14 variations of varying character.

Writing to accompany the Florestan Trio recording of this piece on Hyperion, Richard Wigmore compliments Dittersdorf, whose ‘comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles.’ He also notes the glint in Beethoven’s eye and his predilection for mischief in several of these variations, most notably the ‘delicately tripping twelfth…’disrupted by an uncouth fortissimo outburst – Beethoven gleefully sticking out his tongue at rococo decorum’.


This set of variations is great fun, and you really get a sense of Beethoven flexing his compositional muscles and trying a few new things. From the first variation there are strong hints that he is going to have some fun with this theme – and so it proves. In the second variation the pianist enjoys the opportunity to flex the rhythms, bringing in the violin for a capricious third variation, before the baton passes to the cello for the benefit of its richer tone.

The ensemble passages have great energy, and for almost the first time we are getting a sense of the terrific forward drive in Beethoven’s music, especially in the propulsive movement of the sixth variation. A slow minor key deviation follows (variation 7), the cello and violin exchanging mournful thoughts, before the distant chugging of the violin and cello support a piano theme given in octaves. Variation 9 is lively and fun, while the syncopations of the tenth feel particularly advanced at this stage in Beethoven’s development.

As we approach the end, the second minor key variation (13) is even slower and more drawn out. This only makes the reappearance of the ‘home’ key all the happier, before a striking passage where the piano takes a sort of cadenza over the bare bones of the strings. Finally we return to the simplicity of the theme’s profile from the start, before a rush to the finish.

The variety and virtuosity of these variations is reminiscent of the earlier Venni Amore variations for piano, in their wide breadth of moods and techniques – and in their entertainment value, too.

Recordings used

Florestan Trio (Susan Tomes (piano), Anthony Marwood (violin), Richard Lester (cello) (Hyperion)
Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)
Daniel Barenboim (piano), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline du Pré (cello) (originally EMI Classics)

The superstar trio of Henryk Szeryng, Pierre Fournier and Wilhelm Kempff take their time with Dittersdorf’s theme in a very deliberate presentation, and Variation 2 finds Kempff in particularly airy mood – but it is really well judged. That said, they are still a good deal quicker than another superstar ensemble, including husband and wife team Daniel Barenboim and Jacqueline du Pré.

The best modern version of the variations comes from the Florestan Trio on Hyperion, which enjoys not just the sparkling pianism of Susan Tomes but also the closely-matched Anthony Marwood and Richard Lester. They all embody the first principles of chamber music by clearly listening to each other and responding in kind. As a result their recording is instinctive and fun.

Spotify links

Wilhelm Kempff (piano), Henryk Szeryng (violin), Pierre Fournier (cello) (Deutsche Grammophon)

Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman, Jacqueline du Pré

You can hear a clip from the Florestan trio version on the Hyperion website

Also written in 1792 Haydn Symphony no.73 in D major ‘La Chasse’

Next up An Minna