According to most sources the Six Variations on a Swiss Song were composed in 1790 while Beethoven was still in Bonn and before he left for Vienna to study with Haydn. This is Beethoven’s second set of variations. He composed the first set, Nine Variations on a March by Dressler, WoO 63, at age eleven or twelve.
While pretty straightforward and not too advanced, this set is replete with technical and musical issues for students to tackle. These include a variety of touches: legato, portato, staccato, wedges, and melody and accompaniment played by the same hand; different and contrasting moods; a wide range of dynamics (from p to ff); various rhythms; polyphony (mainly in variation V but also, to some extent, in the theme and in variations I, II and III); numerous technical issues. In addition to the variety of touches mentioned above, other challenges include octaves, runs, and double thirds.
The 11-measure-long theme is different from the more standard 8- or 16-measure themes. The opening, or question part, is 6 measures long; the closing, or answer, is 5 measures. The theme’s melodic contour is easily identifiable through all six variations.
Beethoven meticulously marks the various touches intended for the theme: portato for the quarter notes, wedges for the half notes. In spite of the theme being detaché throughout, it should flow smoothly and with a sense of continuity.
Variations I and II have no execution indications whatsoever: neither of dynamics, nor of mood or character, nor of touch. The uninterrupted flow of triplets between the two hands makes it easy to achieve a sense of continuity in variation I. By contrast, variation II is marked by the angularity of the dotted rhythm. The performer has to be careful to maintain the melodic character of the theme played by the right hand against the left-hand’s dotted rhythm.
Dynamic indications first appear in variation III: sempre piano e legato. In a minor mode, this variation should be clearly voiced and played legato throughout.
An artistic challenge is presented by the dialogue of the two independent lines in variation VI. Though not the most technically difficult, variation VI is the most complex of the set. Sudden dynamic shifts (between ff and p), octaves, fast scale and arpeggio runs, and trills drive this set, which starts out quietly and simply, toward what seems like a brilliant finale, only to suddenly scale back and end quietly and innocently.