About this Recording
8.554372 - BEETHOVEN, L. van: Piano Variations (Scherbakov)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
Variations on God Save the King, WoO 78
Variations on Rule Britannia, WoO 79

Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and, more important, grandson of the Archbishop's former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven's father, described after his death as a considerable loss to the profits of the wine trade, became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father's domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.

Beethoven's early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. From Haydn he claimed to have learned nothing and his teacher must have been dismayed at times by his pupil's duplicity, but he went on to take lessons also from Albrechtsberger, well known for his mastery of counterpoint, and from the Court Composer Antonio Salieri, and was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition.

The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of Fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop an aspect of his music that some critics already regarded as academic or learned, that of counterpoint, an art in which he had acquired great mastery. He continued to develop forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, but expanded these almost to bursting-point, introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. To following generations his music offered a challenge. For some he seemed to have brought the symphony, in particular, to a final climax, and composers like Brahms, who drew on earlier tradition, were faced with the daunting task of continuing on a path that, for some, at least, seemed already to have reached its height.

Beethoven died in 1827, leaving a body of work that has continued to provide subsequent generations with an essential heart to their repertoire, whether in the concertos and symphonies or in the sonatas and chamber music.

The art of variation lies at the heart of a great deal of music. Extended works may include movements consisting of variations, whether so titled or not. In improvisation variation is essential, since a performer was, and is, often obliged to offer variations on a given theme as a demonstration of this skill. Beethoven's earliest variations date from 1782 when he wrote a set of variations on a theme by the singer Ernst Christoph Dressier. His Variations on a Waltz by A. Diabelli offer the final example of this form of composition, completed in 1823.

The Austrian publisher and composer Anton Diabelli had at first established himself in Vienna in the second capacity and as a teacher. Work for the publishers S.A. Steiner & Co. led him, in 1817, to set up in business as a publisher himself, at first selling his own works and then, in partnership with Pietro Cappi, issuing a quantity of popular music for which he found an immediate market. In 1819 he embarked on a project to invite variations from every well known Austrian composer on a simple waltz melody of his own. The final result was a collection of some fifty variations, contributed by fifty composers, including among their number Schubert and the eleven-year-old Liszt, the whole set capped by a final variation by Czerny, to be published as a patriotic Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (Fatherland's Society of Artists).

Beethoven at first demurred, when invited to contribute a variation to the collection, but gradually his purpose changed, as he added variation to variation. By the autumn of 1822 he was writing to Diabelli on the matter of his own variations, which, it had been agreed, should be issued as a separate work. For this Beethoven asked a fee of forty ducats, if the work should develop as he intended. As so often in Beethoven's business dealings, there were simultaneous negotiations with other publishers and plans, through his friend Ferdinand Ries, to issue the work in London, with a dedication to Ries's wife. In the event the set of 33 Variations was published in June 1823 by Diabelli and Cappi, with a dedication to Antonia von Brentano, and the agreement that Ries had made with the London publishers came to nothing. Beethoven was able to blame his friend Schindler for everything, in trying to excuse himself to Ries for the failure of the planned London publication and its proposed dedication.

The C major waltz provided by Diabelli for the variations is one of great simplicity, described by Beethoven as Schusterfleck (‘Cobbler's Patching’), a little piece making much use of the device of sequence, the repetition of a simple figure at different pitches. Beethoven starts his variations with a march, continues with a syncopated version, followed by an exhibition of hand-crossing. There is an imitative opening to the fourth variation, a rhythmically imitative fifth and a more challenging sixth. The seventh variation offers rhythmic variety with its dotted notes and triplets, the eighth makes use of a curious repeated figure in the bass against right-hand chords and the C minor ninth, heavy and resolute, alternates, at first, left and right hand Left ­hand octaves, at first descending, are a feature of the light staccato tenth version of the waltz, with mounting right-hand chords later ascending over a deep left-hand trill and a final bass note that reaches the depths of the newly extended keyboard of the time. A gently imitative Allegretto is followed by an excursion into even more imaginative territory in the twelfth variation, a Vivace and, the fourteenth version of the material, a more solemn treatment of it. A Presto scherzando offers contrast, followed by an Allegro with divided octaves in the left hand, which has the theme in the seventeenth variation. The eighteenth offers contrasts of register and there is canonic imitation in the nineteenth, with a slow Andante 6/4 to follow. The leaping octaves of the following version of the theme frame a contrasting Meno allegro section, while the twenty-second is based on Leporello's comic Notte e giorno faticar (‘Tired out night and day’) from Mozart's Don Giovanni. There is variety of contrary motion in what follows, leading to a muted four-voice fughetta. The twenty-fifth variation sets right-hand chords against a busy left-hand figuration and this is followed by a study in rapid broken triads and a Vivace that again calls for some agility. The following duple-time variation gives harmonic variety, leading now to a sombre C minor Adagio. The same key continues in the thirtieth variation, with its imitative opening and this is followed by an elaborately ornamented Largo. Next comes a second fugue, this time a double one, in E flat major, its two subjects presented together, to end with a brief cadenza. The final metamorphosis is from waltz to minuet, leading to more rapid figuration as the work comes to an end, concluding a remarkable achievement, based on the flimsiest of original musical material, mere Schusterfleck.

The Variations on God Save the King and on Rule Britannia are less substantial. These were written in 1803 and offered to Breitkopf und Härtel and, by Ferdinand Ries, to Simrock. They were published the following year by the Kunst- und Industrie Comptoir. Apparent reference to these variations is made in a letter written by Beethoven, in French, to an unknown correspondent, thought to be either Pleyel in Paris or George Thomson in Edinburgh, publishers with whom he had business. Je vous envoie ci-joint, he writes, des variations sur 2 thèmes anglais qui sont bien faciles et qui à ce que j'espère auront un bons succès (I send you herewith some variations on two English themes that are very easy and which, as I hope, will have good success). The intention of providing something suitable for the amateur market is clear. In 1803, the year of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, there was an uneasy lull in hostilities between Britain and France, after earlier enforced Austrian agreement with Napoleon. It was in the following near that the First Consul had himself crowned Emperor, to Beethoven's dismay. Soon hostilities were to be resumed with a coalition of countries ranged against the new Emperor, whose forces were to occupy Vienna.

Beethoven's variations on Thomas Arne's Rule Britannia, from the latter's masque Alfred of 1740, open with a straightforward statement of the theme. The first variation, Tempo moderato, is a world away, in its exploration of wider ranges of the keyboard, leading to a version of gentle syncopation, against a left-hand accompaniment. The third variation calls for greater agility in its bravura display, while the fourth makes an obligatory and dramatic excursion into the minor. The set ends with an Allegro that restores the melody in clearer form, its headlong course briefly interrupted by hints of the minor key, before its rapid final section and well defined ending.

The Variations on God Save the King, a work that had impressed Haydn in London and inspired his own Emperor's Hymn, presents its theme simply enough and continues with a variation of running notes, followed by rapider treatments of the material in semiquavers, syncopated and broken up. The fifth variation moves into an expressive minor key, followed by a brisk march and a final extended variation that breaks off into an Adagio, before the display of the concluding Allegro,

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