Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827
Beethoven’s 14 Variations on an original theme for piano, violin and cello were published as Op. 44 in 1804 but there are sketches of the work dating back as far as 1792, the year now conventionally assigned as the composition date. In 1792, Beethoven was a mere 22 years old, still living in Bonn and yet three years away from publishing his official first opus, a set of three full-blown four-movement piano trios. It is not known how much Beethoven might have edited Op. 44 before its publication in 1804 but if 1792 witnessed the majority its creation, it is the earliest of Beethoven’s compositions you are likely to hear on the concert stage. Descriptions of the piece have included disclaimers such as “early”, “not as revolutionary as mature Beethoven”, “nothing profound here” and even “conventional”, but such comments overlook something essential. In this single-movement piece lasting some 14 minutes, there is already the craft, range, development and originality to mark Beethoven as a phenomenon as well as highlighting his unsurpassed lifelong mastery of the theme and variations form. Op. 44 quite simply reveals that Beethoven possessed an inexhaustible musical imagination, even when restricted to the most basic and initially unremarkable materials. Already, in 1792, Op. 44, Beethoven’s mature personality is vividly intact. Already, he moves beyond his predecessors.
It was George Bernard Shaw who insightfully wrote that Beethoven could make interesting music from mere “sticks” of themes. As he did on several occasions, Beethoven begins Op. 44 with an intentionally simple-minded theme, almost a joke of a beginning. The theme is a series of simple arpeggios in octave unisons by all three players in a mechanical pulse without any musical adornments whatsoever. The placement of the arpeggios across the bar lines makes the counting and phrasing just a bit ambiguous (it feels like there is an extra unexpected measure) and the melody wanders and hangs unresolved. There is a pause and then a curiously grand cadence sounds twice. Not much of a melody, barely any harmony, and then a few chords, these are no more than unpromising “sticks” of music. But by the end of the piece, Beethoven will have you savoring this music like a favorite, familiar song whose every contour is full of musical meaning.
Beethoven makes the music all the more amazing precisely because of this calculated initial minimalism. But what is remarkable in the ensuing variations is not merely the variety of expression but what Beethoven does with the subtle articulations in the opening theme turning a few tiny adjustments into major dramatic vehicles. The “theme” comprises two parts and a cadence. The two parts each change keys, the second with slightly more drama, both harmonically inconclusive. The twice-repeated cadence is necessary to balance the tension and bring harmonic closure. As time progresses, all three of these parts become elaborate musical gestures, three highly articulated narrative phrases.
The central delight of a theme and variations is the sheer variety a composer can achieve with a single idea, in a sense, changing that material as much as possible while retaining something of the original. How “far out” can a composer get while still making successful music? Beethoven achieves a wonderful variety by variously changing the instrumentation, melody, rhythm, harmony and duration and thereby the color, mood and pace of the music. But there is a longer developmental shape to the variations as they progress leading to a kind of full revelation with extended coda to bring the series to an organic conclusion (including a 15th micro variation at the end). Throughout, Beethoven indulges in surprising contrasts, daring departures and fresh treatments in a marvel of musical alchemy that he would continue to expand over the years in the piano sonatas, symphonies and chamber music reaching truly epic proportions. Coming from the 22-year-old Beethoven in Bonn just prior to his debut in Vienna as a brilliant improvisational pianist, Op. 44 vividly conjures an image of a young lion at the piano with an bountiful flow of creative ideas all from a few sticks of musical suggestion.