Beethoven and the Variation

One of the main characteristics of Beethoven’s compositional style was his ability to take a musical idea and break it into its smallest motives, and then use these motives as building blocks, altering and presenting them in new ways. Beethoven employed this creative style throughout his entire life and entire oeuvre. It is not surprising that variations—a musical form that is based on presenting musical ideas in different ways and in a variety of guises and alterations—played an important role in Beethoven’s musical output throughout his career.

In his early variations, Beethoven employs many elements of Viennese music at the time, and specifically of Viennese variations, including clear texture, figurations, a minor-mode variation in a major-key set, variations based on one of various rhythmic values or patterns (eighth notes, sixteenths, dotted rhythms, or triplets) to modify and disguise the theme or its motives. These elements can all be found in many of Mozart’s variations as far back as K. 25, which Mozart composed when he was ten years old.

Beethoven composed a total of twenty sets of variations during his lifetime. His first set of variations was published when he was only eleven years old and his last set, the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, he composed at age fifty-three. In all he completed twelve sets over a ten-year period from 1790 to 1800. By studying the variations in chronological order, the performer can easily track changes in Beethoven’s compositional style, even within a relatively short period of time.

The first set, WoO 64, was composed in 1790 while Beethoven was still in Bonn. Beethoven arrived in Vienna in November 1792 and studied with Haydn for about a year. Haydn, upon his departure for London in January 1794, passed Beethoven on to Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, Vienna’s best-known teacher of counterpoint.1

The following two sets, WoO 69 and 70, were completed in 1795. Beethoven’s output of piano works in 1795 included the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15, the three piano trios of opus 1, the first three piano sonatas opus 2, and various smaller works, including “Rage Over a Lost Penny” as well as four sets of piano variations, two of which are included in this edition.

In these five sets, the basic tempo of the themes and of most variations is moderate, ranging from Andante con moto to Andante quasi Allegretto and Allegretto. Of the five themes and 35 variations, one variation is marked Allegro and one is marked Tempo di Menuetto (number VIII from WoO 72 in C Major and number IX from WoO 69 in A Major, respectively). It is interesting to note the mostly restrained character of these variations—no extreme tempos or dynamics and no unexpected harmonies—and their generally transparent textures.

This restraint is present despite the fact that Beethoven had concurrently composed various large-scale works with wide dynamic ranges, varied tempos and moods, and remarkable textures.

1 Joseph Kerman et al. “Beethoven, Ludwig van.”
Grove Music Online, (accessed 11 June 2012).

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