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8.550676 - BEETHOVEN: 'Eroica' Variations / 32 Variations, WoO 80
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
Fifteen Variations and a Fugue in E Flat Major, Op. 35 (Eroica Variations)
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the Rhineland town of Bonn in 1770, the eldest surviving son of Johann van Beethoven and Maria Magdalena Keverich. His grandfather, after whom he was named, had joined the chapel of the Elector of Cologne in 1733 as a singer, marrying in the same year. In 1761 he became Kapellmeister, a position he held until his death in 1773.
Kapellmeister Ludwig van Beethoven had been unfortunate in his marriage. His wife became incurably addicted to drink, and was for many years confined in a convent asylum. The only surviving son of the marriage, Johann van Beethoven, the composer's father, was trained as a musician, but was never able to match the ability of his father, later preferring to follow his mother's example, a course of action that soured the composer's childhood and brought early responsibility for two younger brothers, an obligation that Beethoven continued to fill in his own way in later life.
Beethoven's early career as a musician was in the service of the Archbishop of Cologne, as a player of the violin and viola, as deputy organist to his teacher, Gottlob Neefe, as harpsichordist in the theatre, and, above all, as a potential virtuoso of the keyboard. In 1787 he travelled to Vienna, hoping to take lessons from Mozart, but was recalled to Bonn when his mother became seriously ill, the journey served no purpose but to incur debt, as the Archbishop-Elector was later to point out.
It was possibly through the young Count Waldstein that it was decided that Beethoven should return to Vienna, where he might study with Haydn, who had visited Bonn on his first journey to England and been entertained by the electoral orchestra on his return. In November 1792 Beethoven set out for Vienna, with introductions from Count Waldstein that were to stand him in good stead. He took lessons from Haydn, later claiming to have learned nothing, and from Albrechtsberger and the distinguished court composer Antonio Salieri. Waldstein saw him as a successor to Mozart in the closely related and complementary fields of composition and virtuoso performance. His foresight was justified.
It has been customary to divide Beethoven's career into three periods, early, middle and late, or into four, it we are to include the even earlier years in Bonn. The piano sonatas reflect this view of his development as a composer, and incidentally mirror technical developments in the pianoforte itself, as do the sets of variations exactly contemporary with the sonatas, the first of these latter written in 1782 and the last published in 1823.
Variations on well known operatic arias were long popular with audiences and performers, often in improvisation. Beethoven's Six Variations on the duet 'Nei cor pib non mi sento', from Paisiello's opera La molinara, were written and published in Vienna in 1795. The opera itself, originally under the title L'amor contrastato, was first performed in Paisiello's native city of Naples in 1789 and in 1790, under the title of La molinara, in Vienna, where the composer enjoyed great popularity. The opera was performed at the Vienna Court Theatre in 1794 and there were further performances the following summer at the Kärnthnerthor Theatre. Franz Wegeler, in his reminiscences of Beethoven, recounts the story of the composer attending a performance of La molinara with a lady who was very dear to him. During the duet 'Nei cor pib non mi sento' his companion remarked that she had once had a set of variations on the duet, but had lost it. Beethoven that night wrote his own variations, sending them to the lady the next morning, with the inscription "Variazioni, etc, perdute par la -- ritrovate par Luigi van Beethoven." The simple G major melody is followed by a first variation of right-hand semiquavers, followed by a version that provides a running semiquaver left-hand accompaniment to a variation of the melody. An arpeggiated third variation leads to a minor version of the theme and a return to the major in a varied rhythm. The final variation in semiquavers has an Alberti bass accompaniment and a modicum of hand-crossing as it nears a conclusion.
The Six Variations on an Original Theme, Opus 34, were written in 1802 and dedicated to Princess Odescalchi, who before her marriage to the Pressburg nobleman Prince Innocenzo d'Erba-Odescalchi, had been, as Countess Babette Keglevich, a pupil of Beethoven. Other works written for her were the E flat Piano Sonata, Op. 7, the Variations 'La stessa, la stessima' and the First Piano Concerto. The Adagio F major theme is followed by an elaborately decorated D major variation, an Allegro excursion into the key of B flat, a G major Allegro and an E flat Tempo di Menuetto. The fifth variation is a March in C minor and the final variation starts as a compound rhythm Allegretto, leading to an Adagio that the composer's pupil Ries claims he was compelled to play through seventeen times, before the cadenza satisfied his teacher, who displayed, in these lessons, an unusual degree of patience.
The Eroica Variations, Fifteen Variations and a Fugue on an Original Theme, Op. 35, were written in 1802 and published the following year in Leipzig. The work was finally dedicated to Mozart's former pupil, Count Moritz Lichnowsky, brother of Beethoven's generous patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky, after an originally intended dedication to the Abbé Stadler. The theme appears elsewhere, in the finale of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, in the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus and in a Contredanse. As in the symphony, the theme appears first in skeletal form, an opening chord followed by the bass-line only. It then appears in two parts, the right hand adding a simple counterpoint. The right hand now takes the original bass-line, crossed intermittently by the left hand, giving an impression of three voices. This is followed by a version a quattro, with the original bass now the upper part, and this leads to the familiar theme itself. Beethoven stressed to his publishers, Breitkopf and Hartel, the originality of the two sets of variations, Opus 34 and Opus 35, the first not least in its varieties of key for each variation. The first of the Eroica variations, which might, had the composer's intentions been followed, have been better known as the Prometheus Variations, offers a semiquaver right-hand version of the theme, followed by a triplet semiquaver version, including a brief cadenza. An abrupt third variation leads to a running semiquaver bass, with right-hand chords, and to a brief syncopated fifth variation. The theme emerges with greater clarity in the sixth variation, while the seventh is a canon at the octave. The hand-crossing of the eighth variation is succeeded by a version in which the bass of the theme is heard in lower register grace notes and a division of labour in the tenth. The following three variations explore other keyboard sonorities, before the penultimate E flat minor fourteenth and the ornamented Largo of the E flat major fifteenth. The fugal subject, the bass of the theme, is announced in the second voice, answered in the upper voice, and followed by a third bass entry. The fugal texture is unusually interrupted by a passage that leads to the return of the full theme and its subsequent elaboration in a brilliant conclusion.
The Thirty-two Variations on an Original Theme, WoO 80, were written in 1806 and published in Vienna in the following year. Beethoven later seemed to have forgotten the work and failed to recognise it, when he heard the daughter of the piano-maker Streicher playing it. The brief theme and the variations make up, in fact, a chaconne, a treatment of the traditional Baroque variation form in a manner characteristic of Beethoven in its use of novel textures, a wide range of the keyboard and innovative rhythms. The more extended final version of the theme opens with a passage in cross-rhythms, leading, in a triplet semiquaver right-hand sequence to a chromatically decorated upper part and a conclusion that brings its own various surprises of dynamics, rhythms and texture.
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