What Beethoven loved about the Britsmain
Variations in C major on ‘God save the King’ for Piano WoO 78 (1803)
There is no obvious reason why a German composer residing in Vienna should decide to write a riff on the British national anthem and another on an associated jingoistic tune. Was Ludwig van Beethoven an English spy? Did he eat chips with his fish and drink his beer warm? Not so far as we know. He did once concede that the English had the best national anthem, but he might have meant it in the same way as we say the Devil has the best tunes.
In any event he was not the first to be drawn to the anthem and decorate it with classical variations. He probably knew of a set of God Save the Kings variations by Forkel, Johann Sebastian Bach’s first biographer, published in 1791, and certainly came across the variations written by Johann Christian Bach in 1763 in the finale of his sixth harpsichord concerto. At that time, the tune was pretty much fresh off the presses. It had only come into popular usage as a national anthem in 1745, following the crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion.
Beethoven wrote his God Save the King set in 1803 and offered it together with his ‘Rule, Britannia’ variations to his Edinburgh publisher, George Thomson, in October that year. Before long, it was published in London by Muzio Clementi, who incorporated the theme in his own G-major symphony. Anyone could whistle the tune and it contained enough musical wriggle-room for good composers to weave variations.
Despite the rich revenues it generated for publishers, the popularity of Beethoven’s composition faded and is missed the cut for inclusion in the final catalogue of his works, hence the WithoutOpus number attached. In modern times it is seldom performed in major halls and has been commerically recorded no more than two dozen times, which I find a little surprising. Most of the extant recordings are by pianosts of little renown.
Among the mainstream, Alfred Brendel’s 1960s Vienna set held its own for half a century, played with that slight stiffness that is appropriate to courtiers when royalty is in attendance. Despite an unappealing studio ambience, Brendel’s performance is demonstrative in its fidelity and neutrality. He never gives a hint of loyalities, singular or divided.
No less neutral but markedly more relaxed is Rudolf Buchbinder, a younger Austrian of unfailing discretion and elegance. Buchbinder plays the anthem as if he’s completely unaware of its words or national connotations, focussing on phrasing, dynamics and beauty as if he were giving a masterclass in Graz, or Heiligenstadt.
Among the few English pianists to address the set is the tragic figure of John Ogdon (1937-1989). Ogdon shared first prize at the 1962 Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition with Vladimir Ashkenazy and would have enjoyed an extraordinary career were it not for the combined effects of an overburdened concert schedule and the onset of mental illness.
His decline has been recorded in several books and television documentaries, and he is by no means forgotten. His college contemporary Harrison Birtwistle told me that ‘John could play anything on sight, accurately at first and then with improvisations that he made up on the spot.’ He played a lot of esoteric stuff by Sorabji, Hoddinott and Medtner but Beethoven was at the heart of his practise and he left some memorable recordings on EMI.
In the God Save the King variations, Ogdon dispenses with stuffiness and searches for tender moments in the third and fourth variations. Giant of a man that he was, you could hardly wish for a softer touch at the keyboard or a simpler way of storytelling. I am dumbfounded by the beauties he uncovers where others merely play what’s put before them. His gift was unparallelled.
Variations in D major on ‘Rule Britannia’ for Piano WoO 79
This rousing exhortation was first heard in Alfred, a masque by Thomas Arne about Alfred the Great, the king who burned the cakes. It was performed to celebrate the accession of George II, with the aim of underlining this German ruler’s patriotic credentials, and it obtained popular appeal in 1745, at the same time as God Save the King was established as the national hymn. Beethoven found it musically less fertile and wrote half-length variations, although the tune returned to him unprompted with he was composing his Piano Sonata No. 24, Op. 78, “À Thérèse”. You will find it there in the second movement.
John Ogdon takes it slower than most but seems to lose interest as he goes. Brendel is jollier, wittier by half. The Dutch fortepianist Ronald Brautigam conjures up the spirit of the times on a period instrument. In the fourth variation, he intimates hints of Chopin. No-one gives it the full Last Night treatment (pictured below).
Variations in B flat major on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ by Antonio Salieri for Piano WoO 73
Any composer in 1790s Vienna had to doff his cap to the court-appointed Salieri who controlled much of the musical patronage in the town. Beethoven paid homage with a set of variations that, like Mozart before him, showed up Salieri for a feeble note-spinner who lacked the nous to develop the potential that lay within his own flimsy themes. Beethoven’s contribution is so esoteric that hardly anyone plays or records it – apart from the compendious Brendel, Ogdon and Brautigam.
The version I like best is by Plamena Mangova, a Bulgarian pianist of phenomenal technique and exquisite good taste. This set was recorded in 2007, the year she came second in the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. It shows her to be an artist capable of finding gold where other just see dross – rather as Mozart and Beethoven did with Salieri. (I would also give a spin to Gianluca Cascioli, who channels Salieri’s inner Italian in charming and unexpected ways.)