Beethoven mixed what others could not match

Beethoven mixed what others could not match


norman lebrecht

July 30, 2020

Welcome to the 103rd work in the Slipped Disc/Idagio Beethoven Edition

Variations in A major on a Russian Dance by Paul Wranitzky for Piano WoO 71 (1796)

There are some two dozen sets of variations by Beethoven on themes by other composers, but a bare handful of works by others which develop a theme from Beethoven’s voluminous output. Why is that?

Let’s consider the circumstances.

Almost all of Beethoven’s variations were composed in his 20s just before or while he was trying to make a name in Vienna. Taking a theme by Mozart or Handel was a time-tested way of projecting himself in association with established favourites. But Beethoven was not fussy where he took his themes so long as he could build his own Babel tower on the original base. There’s a 15-minute set on a march by a man called Ernst Christoph Dressler, a Vienna tenor who died in 1779 when Beethoven was still in short pants. Beethoven was only 11 when he wrote the set.

Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808), whose Russian dance that Beethoven variegated is his ticket to posterity, was a Czech composer of 44 symphonies and 56 string quartets, all completely forgotten. His only footprint on history was as conductor of the world premiere of Beethoven’s first symphony.

Variations in D major on ‘Venni amore’ by Vincenzo Righini for Piano WoO 65 “Righini Variations” (1791)

Some of Beethoven’s other choices were overtly political. Who was Vincenzo Righini whose variations provided Beethoven with a publishing deal at Schott and, as the British scholar Barry Cooper argues, his first masterpiece. Righini was a Bologna singer and conductor who replaced Salieri for a few months in the Habsburg court before landing the powerful kapellmeister job at the Prussian court in Berlin. Did Beethoven think he might be a useful ally? Was Righini even aware that Beethoven was using his work? Cooper argues that the Righini Variations provided Beethoven with the framework for his concluding piano summit, the Diabelli Variations. There are several recordings of the Righini variations; the young Alfred Brendel delivers them with masterpiece reverence. The Russian Mikhail Pletnev offers a playful alternative.

No less political was his selection of themes by Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a Viennese veteran who had been friendly with Mozart and Haydn – the set is wittily titled ‘there once was an old man’ – and Antonio Salieri, controller of court patronage. Beethoven set an insipid and utterly humourless theme from Salieri’s opera, Falstaff. Another throwback to Mozart is a pack of Variations in F major on ‘Tändeln und scherzen’ by Franz Xaver Süßmayr, the widow Mozart’s companion who was charged with the completion of Mozart’s Requiem. By the end of the 18th century Beethoven no longer bothers to doff his hat to these notables and his stream of variations on other men’s themes peters out. But the stimulus to write variations has been embedded deep in his system and will recur at vital moments in his life. In all, he wrote 60 compositions in variation form.

It remains puzzling, though, that so few great composers looked to Beethoven as a source for their own elaborations.

The first who comes to mind is Robert Schumann:

Studies in the Form of Free Variations on a Theme of Beethoven Anh. F25

This appears to have been a set of exercises to improve his own piano playing – both Clara and her father were superior pianists – but Schumann subjects an Eroica theme to quite thrilling extrapolations and the work deserves to be more widely known. It is played here by the fearless London-based Hungarian, Peter Frankl.

There is a wonderful dialogue between two Russian pianists, Takov Zak and Emil Gilels on the Variations on a Theme of Beethoven for 2 Pianos in E flat major op. 35 by the exuberant French composer Camille Saint-Saens. There’s very little Beethoven to be heard in it but the key is a Beethoven home base and the effervescence is wonderful.

Which is more than can be said of Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven op. 86 (Version for 2 Pianos), which descends from morose to morbid, even with such expressive interpreters as Peter Serkin and Andras Schiff. The orchestral version is no jollier, beautifully played as it might be. You get the feeling Reger knew how far he was down the evolutionary scale from Beethoven.

The Austrian composer Franz Schmidt wrote Concertante Variations on a Theme of Beethoven as a left-hand-only piano concerto for the wealthy Paul Wittgenstein, brother of the philosopher, who had lost in right arm in Russian captivity during the First World War. It is an unexpected delight. The main theme is taken from the scherzo movement of Beethoven’s Spring sonata and Schmidt develops it with a wit and levity altogether out of character with the post-War miseries of 1923. If you know Schmidt (1874-1939) only as a name in the dictionary this is an ideal entry point to a composer whom some conductors of my acquaintance consider to be among the greatest. By the first variation, you are halfway between a Vienna nightclub and a Berlin film set. Amazing that it is so little performed, with just one recording presently available.


If you’re obsessive about these things – who, me? – you may also find a set of 40 variations on a Beethoven theme by his pupil Archduke Rudolph which has never apparently been recorded, and a set f Beethoven variations by the British composer Wilfred Josephs, which Andre Previn premiered in 1970 at Carnegie Hall. Plus 10 jazz variations by the Jacques Loussier Trio on the theme of the allegretto of the seventh Symphony.

But that’s about it. Beethoven did not leave many scraps for other composers to exploit.




  • fflambeau says:

    This kind of obsessive for Beethoven trivia is harmful to classical music for 2 reasons:

    1) many people think that Beethoven is all that classical music has to offer;
    2) the obsession blots out more noteworthy work from underperformed and underplayed composers.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Would John Corigliano’s “Fantasia on an Ostinato” count as a variation sequence? It’s based on the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony.

    As for Beethoven’s Righini variations, I can’t understand why they’re not performed more often (i.e., at all…), and perhaps even in tandem with the Diabellis that they foreshadow so audibly at some points.

    • Novagerio says:

      San Diego fella: When you yourself have got through the near Olympic effort of performing the Diabelli-Variations in public, let’s see if you have any fuel left to play 24 more variations (sarcastic emoji)

      • Peter San Diego says:

        Novagerio, I’m fully aware of the physical and mental challenges that the Diabelli Variations present, but there are many pianists who have programmed them as the second half of a full recital — and not only masochists who also perform the full Opus Clavicembalisticum (for example).

  • Paul Dawson says:

    So pleased to see the Tractatus cover. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” should be drilled into those (alas, I cannot exclude myself) who comment excessively.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That’s what I’m saying all the time here, I don’t know this Witt guy but he definitely was right!

      And this Beet guy gets on my nerves, you almost would want to listen to the music to know where it’s all about.


  • Pianofortissimo says:

    ‘Completism’ can be a very disapointing compulsion. All those early variation sets would not have survived if they were composed by Brahms…

  • Bakr York says:

    All four movements of Brahms’ First Symphony?

  • David K. Nelson says:

    My former colleague on the staff of Fanfare Magazine, concert pianist and scholar Susan Kagan, has recorded the Archduke Rudolf’s variations on a theme by Beethoven as part of a disc of music by Beethoven’s pupils. Koch International label. The Archduke was Susan’s special study as a PhD and she quite literally “wrote the book” on the life and music of the Archduke. She also recorded his violin sonata with Josef Suk. (She and Suk also recorded Grieg sonatas.)

    Perhaps it is too trifling to count but Fritz Kreisler composed a Rondino on a Theme by Beethoven, and it has been recorded many times by many great violinists including Kreisler himself. The story is that his very rough draft of the composition was on the piano when Mischa Elman and Leopold Godowsky came to visit, and as a joke Elman and Godowsky proceeded to totally burlesque the piece, stomping their feet and exaggerating everything so thoroughly that when the Rondino was published in 1915, Kreisler “punished” Mischa by dedicating the work to him. It became one of Elman’s most popular and favorite encores and he recorded it at least twice, once an acoustic and another in stereo. There is also a very lovely recording by Francescatti, but the discography list is a long one.

  • Esfir Ross says:

    Susan Kagan recorded Sonatas and sonatina by Fernando Rias.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    I love the three sets of Beethoven variations (two Mozart themes and one Handel) for cello and piano. They are challenging and fascinating in so many unexpected ways, technically and musically.

    • Edgar Self says:

      Nathaniel Rosen, I love them too. Ludwig Hoelscher recorded the three cello variation sets with Ellhy Ney, his long-time trio partner. I saw them play one set and the G-minor cello sonata in Bad Nauheim, along with a Bach suite by him and a Beethoven sonata by her.

      But you must have recorded them yourself? the “Eyeglass Duet” is my other pet, also the Op. 17 horn sonata on cello.

      Casals and Cortot recorded “Bei Maennern” early and late. Ttheir 1958 version Prades was Cortot’s final public appearance; they are in reasonably good shape and sound vry like themselves, especially in the minore variation with slow piano intro.

      Please apologize to young Ashkenazy for me, if he means my encyclopedia of mis-strikes. His father was more forgiving when he visited me at Tower when he brought the Czech Philharmonic to Chicago when my vision was better, and before glaucoma blinded me, leaving me picking around where I really have no business. I enjoy seeing your name here.

      The violin set on “Si vuol ballare” I have on a modern Camerata by two excellent Viennese and also I think with Vengerov playing some rarities. And, oh, please forgive the typos, in all mercy.

  • Edgar Self says:

    ˆ’m glad to have all these examples of Beethoven’s improvisatory skill in varying simple themes, even simple-minded ones like Diablelli’s, which he first threw into the dustbin, then retrieved to demonstrate the transmutation of dross into gold, even into a great fugue.

    But a masterpiece lurks in the Anhang: Bethoven’s only chaconne,perversely titled “Variations on an Original Theme in C minor”, 32 classically formed variation set clearly modeled on Handel’s and Bach’s examples, the former’s Chaconne in G for keyboard, recorded by Fou Ts’ong and Edwin Fischer. It is also a psychologically revelatory compendium of progressive variation techniques culminating in a terrific denouement and epiphany,throwing the covers off to reveal the true subject, though almost destroyed by an ill-timed and harmfully misunderstood anecdote uncritically repeated in the literature without recourse to the music itself. I have yet to hear it played as I dream it can be, with full justice even by the following list, who do what they can with varying success and imagination, some in bewildered homge, as Rachmaninoff wroye excusing himself from omitting some variations, as Michelangeli does at different tims with Brahms’s Paganinis.

    I coached years with ricardo Hernandez … is he still alive, GHreg Bottini? … to get it as near right as we could, sometimes approaching our ideal. Sitting upstairs over the piano, I noted Elly Ney’s righy hand crossing fourth finger over fifth for octave legato, I saw Elly Ney play it in the Alte Aula of Heidelberg University and passed a sleepless night transfixed by the music. I bought Donstance Keene’s excellent LP next day, with Liszt’s hypnotic “Weinen, Klagen,Sorge, Zagen Variations” long versionand first book ofBrahms’s Paganinis.

    To hear Rachmaninoff, Constance Keene, Brendel, Glenn Gould, Elly Ney, or Horowiz play it is revelatory. A masterwork, and as stated the only example of chaconne or passacglia in all Beethoven. Brahms’s famous example, the finale of the Fourth, is a chaconne, not passacsglia as so often stated; and Bach’s Heaven-storming solo violin work can obsess. Busoni’s realisation of all that Bach’s solo violin implies is a staggerin work of inellect and imagination. Ronald Stevenson, Godowsky, Shostakovich, Bach, Buxtehude, and Handel are masters of this most exacting form and return to it tirelessly, as to the fugue and ricercare in all their permutations. I only wish DDonald Francis Tovey had taken up Beethoven’s chaconne to make it respectable and recognised foer the great work that it is.

  • William Safford says:

    Something I rarely see mentioned, although a conductor once brought up the topic over coffee with me: how the first two measures of the second theme in the first movement of the Weber bassoon concerto is identical to the first two measures of the primary theme in the first movement of the Beethoven Cello Sonata #1. It’s not exactly variation, but at least I find it interesting.

  • Paul Carlile says:

    By sheer coincidence, i’ve just been to a (live) recital in Montpellier where pianist Tristan Pfaff played brilliantly Thalberg’s “Souvenirs de Beethoven” (Allegretto 7th Sym). Entertaining to hear once but not a very good composition. Thalberg also put a fair bit of the 5th into the mix!