How Beethoven dealt with Mozart’s shadow

How Beethoven dealt with Mozart’s shadow


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2020

Welcome to the 62nd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Variations in F major on Mozart’s ‘Se vuol ballare’ for Violin and Piano WoO 40

The story goes that Beethoven,aged 17, was brought to Mozart’s home in Vienna and told to play something. He struck up Mozart’s C minor concerto, only to be told to perform something of his own. Mozart was impressed, telling his wife Constanze, ‘watch out for that boy, one day he’ll give the world something to talk about.’

Whether that meeting ever happened in 1787 is a matter of conjecture. Beethoven certainly visited Vienna but Mozart was mostly out of town and there is no reliable corroboration of the anecdote. What is certain is that Beethoven knew Mozart’s music and was confident enough when writing his own not to attempt imitation. By the time he returned to Vienna as a young composer in November 1792, Mozart had been dead less than a year and there was a big gap in the pantheon. Beethoven was talked about as a successor but he understood that, to make his name, he needed to be different from Mozart in significant ways.

Knowing Mozart’s music, however, he could not altogether escape its influence, nor did he want to. At key points in his mature output, he references Mozart, consciously or otherwise. The opening of his Eroica symphony, for instance, is strikingly similar to the introductory phrase of Mozart’s little opera Bastien et Bastienne. Compare them here. And here.

A second affinity can be found in the start of the third movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony (here) and the first eight notes of Mozart’s 40th symphony (here). There is also a case to be made that Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto in C minor draws upon Mozart’s in the same key, the one that Beethoven allegedly started to play at Mozart’s home. Did that experience challenge him to go one better in C minor?

These echoes are extremely interesting without being of lasting significance in our appreciation of Beethoven’s originality. Sure, he quoted from Handel’s Messiah in the Missa Solemnis, but that work could not have been written by anyone other than Beethoven. We know that at an open-air performance of Mozart’s C minor concerto Beethoven said to a pupil, ‘Ah, Cramer, we will never be able to do anything like that.’ Somewhere within that remark one can imagine Beethoven thinking, ‘thank goodness we don’t have to do anything like that.’ Beethoven never saw himself as the next Mozart, only as a completely different kind of composer.

He was unstinting in his appreciation of Mozart’s operas and, in his first months in Vienna in 1792-3, he composed four sets of variations, two on themes from Marriage of Figaro and two from the Magic Flute. Only one of these essays made it into his final catalogue but they have always been popular with audiences.

The ‘Se vuol ballare’ theme from Figaro uses the violin initially as a plucked instrument before the piano changes to a plusher sound. Yehudi Menuhin and Wilhelm Kempff, opposites in almost every human aspect, are aptly matched for cut and thrust in the 12 variations on this 1970 recording. One can almost smell the effort each of them was making to stay polite. Elsewhere, in a fairly thin field, I am also drawn to a 2019 set by James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong, a convincing reflection of a young composer’s respect for a half-resented forbear.

Variations in C major on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ by W. A. Mozart for 2 Oboes and Cor anglais WoO 28

Better known by far is Beethoven’s riff on a Figaro theme delivery boys were whistling in the Vienna streets. The appeal of this piece is so extensive that musicians have often felt free to change the instrumentation. The woodwinds of the Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, deliver a horribly reverential, pedestrian group exercise. Sabine Meyer, her brother and a friend play on two clarinets and a bassethorn, nothing like what Beethoven had in mind but warmer and livelier than the Berliners.

The Frenchman Francois Lelux goes for oboe, clarinet and bassoon, perhaps the most convincing of these renditions. Avoid, at all costs, the London Baroque Ensemble‘s prissy, undernourished take of 1991.

Variations in F major on ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ by W. A. Mozart for Violoncello and Piano op. 66

There is a veritable cornucopia of high-powered performances on record. Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin at Perpignan in 1951, before the cellist had fully established his summer festival at nearby Prades, give an account of great restraint and solemnity, perhaps still shadowed by the recent war. For painful beauty, it’s hard to beat.

Gregor Piatigorsky is always compelling and, with the Lukas Foss at the piano, memorably challenging as well.

Mstislav Rostropovich has Vasso Devetzi as his pianist on a little-known 1974 recording in which the cellist seems more than usually restrained but unfailingly glorious in tone. For demonstration purposes you would want to play János Starker and Rudolf Buchbinder, both pedagogically inclined. My ultimate choice would be Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich, utterly uninhibited and full of the mischief that Mozart first invested in this aria.

Variations in E flat major on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’ by W. A. Mozart for Violoncello and Piano WoO 46

This aria sounds as if it started as a nursery rhyme and got lost on the way to the bathroom. Taken literally – as Elly Ney and Ludwig Hoelscher play the score – it is insufferably puerile. Given some air by Alfred Cortot and Casals (1927), it’s a different piece altogether, a gentle rejoicing in the pleasures of love and life itself.

You might find Yo Yo Ma a bit big in this, even with Emanuel Ax at the piano, urging restraint. Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich are inevitably recommendable. But spare a few moments for a 2015 Wigmore Hall recital by Ralph Kirshbaum and Shai Wosner, a performance that brings out the serene informality and semi-privacy of chamber music at its best.

A fantasy illustration from the fanciful meeting



  • Manuel Drezner says:

    La ci darem la mano
    Don Giovanni

  • Yi Peng LI says:

    Do you see shades of Mozart’s K457 piano sonata as an influence on Beethoven? As a listener I can’t help noticing how elements of this sonata rubs off on the Tempest sonata and even the 5th symphony. And on the C minor piano sonatas (op. 10/1 and the Pathetique).

  • Steven Hill says:

    Là ci darem la mano is from Don Giovanni.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Interesting. The musical relationship between Mozart and Beethoven explains how a musical tradition works: a common vocabulary of means can be used in personal ways, with the result that material is changed in the hands of different composers. Beethoven’s originality does not lay on the level of the material, but in the way he uses that material, in the same way writers use the same vocabulary and grammer to tell different things. Nobody would accuse Beethoven of imitation when hearing a triad or a scale or a cadence.

    But Beethoven had difficulty to find his personal version of things, that is why he struggled so hard with his sketches, working on the material to get away from his sources stage after stage. Mozart was much more relaxed and simply followed his appetite, using all kinds of material he came across or which he remembered from the travels in his youth.

    The source of Beethoven III is interesting indeed. Here is the Ouverture of Bastien et Bastienne (the link in the post does not work):

  • To the comparison between Beethoven’s 3rd piano concerto and Mozart’s C minor, I would add that the final movement of Brahms’ D minor concerto seems modeled after the last movement of Beethoven’s 3rd.

  • ThrownOutOfTheKremlinForSinging says:

    Questo poi la conosco pur troppo.

  • Louise van Hoven says:

    Without cross-pollunation there is no art nor science.
    Mozart and Beethoven are two completeltly different composers, in my opinion and perception.

  • Stephen from Buffalo says:

    So there are TWO blasts before the main theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Movement 1! I remembered it as one blast, which I hope does not disqualify me from commenting here 🙂 Since the theme is akin to a Mozart theme–thank you Norman Lebrecht!–could Beethoven unconsciously have been thinking-yes! they’ll see we are two equals making our big noises in the world!

  • Arthur Kaptainis says:

    Mention should be made of the 22nd of the Diabelli Variations, explicitly titled “alla ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ di Mozart.”

  • Nijinsky says:

    I don’t know how Mozart was supposed to have an intimidating shadow. Someone who had his whole life heartbreaking intrigue going on with anything he did, who barely survived in many ways rather than having any of the comfort he might have had from the immense acclaim his music started to have shortly after his death, and still does. If there was any “shadow” it was the mob of composers in that time who were all more interested in playing the game then, more interested in being in fashion (so they could play the game), and more interested in having their music performed, getting privileges, and getting paid for it rather then being interested in music itself. In fact if anything was overshadowing either Mozart or Beethoven it was the conventions of the time. There’s STILL more emotion in Mozart than most people care to allow, even in this time, to come forth willingly (the same as their own humanity so often), although it still can’t be suppressed and finds its avenues through the same sort of involuntary behavior that your heartbeat or your breathing is.

    And that’s why Mozart was “Mozart” because he cared about music, knew what it could be for the human heart giving breath to the human soul in a way that remains the innate condition music can be for anyone.

    I hardly think Beethoven was trying to get away from any “shadow” of Wolfgang. I think he was doing the same thing in his own innate way.

    And it truly gets awfully silly when instead of it being about music, it becomes about someone’s “accomplishments” and a shadow they supposedly left, and a whole multitude of composers are frightened to write anything comparing it to what happened by itself because Beethoven was Beethoven and nobody else, as if Beethoven was leaving a shadow, which I don’t think he was either.

    It really would be amazing if people would get over what they think they’re doing or should be doing or think would bring them acclaim if they could be doing, and just be themselves, what Beethoven DID do.

    • John Borstlap says:


      Humanity has not changed much: today, most composers are not interested in music and merely throw themselves into the competition for money, positions, state subsidies, and community-enhancing fashions and diversity distractions.

      Mozart came into the world as an isolated phenomenon and left it similarly. But surely he left a ‘shadow’: composers of that time who used his type of language (which went a bit out of fashion after 1800) were inevitably compared with Mozart and disappeared. Rare exceptions are the early works of Schubert like his symphony nr 5 which can stand the comparison. Also Beethoven left a ‘shadow’: after him, composers sought very different directions in an effort to escape comparison. Only Brahms achieved the impressive feat of openly using Beethovian gestures and surviving the comparison. Wagner used a lot of Beethoven but in opera, that was his route of escape. Mahler put lots of extra brass in his symphonies to trump any Beethoven recollection, but he was at his best when forgetting about it. Neither Mozart nor Beethoven have anything to say to contemporary composers, for them they are venerable and thus boring artefacts in the museum they no longer need to visit. But many of them want to have their own place in the museum, without having to deserve it.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    The Thayer’s quote to Cramer was followed by this description: “As the theme was repeated and wrought up to the climax, Beethoven, swaying his body to and fro, marked the time and in every possible manner manifested a delight rising to enthusiasm.” (Page 209) Rumour has it that he also said “I wish I had written this”. One would hope that he had composed cadenzas to the C Minor Concerto on top of the D Minor.

  • esfir ross says:

    Did Mozart stole tune of “Se vuole ballare” from Luigi Boccerini cello concerto #10 finale? I consult Steven Isserlis that told Boccerini 10 concerto was written before “Marriage of Figaro”.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Mr. Poulin –In absence of a Beethoven cadenza for Mozart’s C-minor concerto, there’s a grandly Beethovenian one by Edwin Fischer, who plays it on both his recordings.

    After a performance of Mozart’s 24th, Beethoven told Ries, “We’ll never get an adea as good as that”, wentt home, and began his third concerto in the same key with a similar theme.

    A Camerata CD of the “Kreutzer” by Roland Barik and Volkhard Streude includes the 12 Variations on “Si vuol ballare” and the Rondo in G WoO 41.

    In 1958 at Prades, 30 years after their first version, Casals and Alfred Cortot recorded “Bei Maennern” Variations and the third cello sonat Op 69. It was Cortot’s last public performance. The old magic held, and the two old friends were reconciled at last. It’s in one of the big Prades Festival boxes.

    • Daniel Poulin says:

      Edwin Fischer is not the only great pianist to have written his own cadenza to the first movement of the C Minor Concerto, Brahms and Saint Saëns come to mind. The one cadenza closest to what Beethoven may have composed is the one Hummel wrote (Hummel and Beethoven were good friends). If you want to hear Hummel’s cadenza listen to Glenn Gould’s recording of the 24th Concerto.

      • Edgar Self says:

        Thank you, Daniel oulin. I like Glenn Gould’s record of Mozaert’s 24 C-minor concerto very much, and the cadenza, which I didn’t remember as Hummel’s (maybe not identified on. I think Artur rubinstein played Saint-Saens’s cadenza. I have Idel Biret’s Naxos CD of several Brahms cadenzas, including that one. Brahms himself in youth played one of Chopin’s concerti.

        Cadenzas are fun. Robert Levin purportedly improvised his own, as was the old ustom, for Mozart’s and Beethoven’s works he recorded, probably giving the engineers coronaries.

        David Fray and some other of today’s pianists play interesting ones, sometimes Fischer’s.

        Carl Reinecke wrote one of the best for Beethoven’s third. Benno Moiseiwitsch and Wilhelm Backhaus play it, B.M.spectacularly. Maria Grinberg plays Reinike’s cadenza for the fourth concerto in her performance with Jarvi, not as striking to me .

        The cadenza to end all likely is Alkan’s, recorded by Marc-Andre Hamelin, also spectacularly.

        • Daniel Poulin says:

          Beethoven is likely to have disapprove of personal cadenzas to his concertos, especially the 3rd and 4th. He is known to have said he was very disappointed by his contemporary pianists. That’s why he suggested 3 of his own cadenzas to his Concerto no.1, op.15 and 2 for Concerto no.4. Then, to illustrate his fear of soloists adding cadenza to his 5th (Emperor) he said in the score “sine una cadenza”: Don’t even think of adding one.

          • Edgar Self says:

            Good point. Maestro Poulin. Of course you are right, But I sit up when cadenza time arrives, even on records, anxious to hear which the soloist will play, and if I know it. It’s nice to be surprised, even mystified.

            On the violin side, Ruggiero Ricci recorded a dozen or so cadenzas each for the primo of the Beethoven and Brahms concerti, programmable into the complete performance on the same CD. Every violinist I know has them.

            The first cadenza of all, in Brandenburg Five, is integral admitting of no substitution. No doubt its composer and Beethoven knew best.

            One thing I like about Edwin Fischer’s cadenzas is that they carry the music forward, instead of dangling it from Glenn Gould’s chandelier.

            An afterthought. Unfortunately, Fischer’s cadenza for Beethoven’s first isn’t one of his best, and in poor sound. Still worse, n the recently issued live performance of it by Alfred Cortot and Desarzens with Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, there is no cadenza at all, by anyone! Chapeau. Agreeable and distinguished sentiments.