Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Nationality: German
Baptized: December 17, 1770, Bonn Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna (age 56)

12 Variations on 'See the conqu'ring hero comes' from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45 (for cello and piano)

(for cello and piano)
Duration: 12 minutes (approximately)
Composed: 1796 (age 25-26)
2 recordings, 3 videos
6:55
Piace Duo
(part 1)
5:59
Piace Duo
(part 2)
13:55
Casals, Serkin
From Kai Christiansen

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

Twelve Variations on "See here the conqu'ring hero comes" from Handel's Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45 (for Cello and Piano), 1796
Ludwig van BeethovenBefore the revolutionary series of symphonies, string quartets and mature piano sonatas, the young Beethoven wrote a wide variety of chamber music to gain entry into the drawing rooms of his noble patrons. His first published opus was a set of piano trios and within a few years, he added a number of string trios and several works for cello and piano. Beethoven was the first to compose for this combination; his Op. 5 cello sonatas represent the birth of a genre. Though the cello began to enjoy a new independence in the chamber works of Haydn and Mozart, it was Beethoven who gave the cello its new intimate setting. The same early years produced three sets of variations for piano and cello including one based on a theme from Handel's oratorio Judas Maccabaeus.

Among many things, Beethoven was a master of the theme and variations. Think of the Eroica variations, the Diabelli variations or the innumerable other variation movements throughout his compositions of all sorts (piano sonatas, string quartet, symphonies, etc). He wrote variations throughout his entire life. Beethoven seemed have an inexhaustible store of fresh ideas as well as an instinctive sense for the larger line of development across variations creating a coherent dramatic whole.

Georg Frideric HändelThe theme and variations form likely needs little commentary. Though its premise is simple, its aesthetic goals are not. They challenge the composer to transform an essential musical idea into an entertaining variety of styles while retaining a recognizable aspect of its original nature as the first unifying principle. The second unifying principle is the sequencing of variations for satisfying dramatic narrative. What are the variables? In addition to changing the melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo, the intimate chamber ensemble enables variations of texture and the use of dialog. Within Beethoven's variations one finds the cello and piano taking turns as soloist, with or without accompaniment, engaging in conversational exchanges of call and response and joining in the exquisite mutuality of counterpoint. His skills as pianist and contrapuntalist enable Beethoven to further divide the piano into multiple voices joining the cello for a frequent texture of more than just the two parts that a duet implies.

A signature of Beethoven's variations is the use of strong contrast within a variation as well as the more obvious contrast across variations. Handel's concise and tuneful theme follows a clear ABA organization where the B section shifts to a minor key. Notice how Beethoven exploits this division to achieve striking contrasts in a variety of ways. The effects range from witty to daring and always revolve around this turning point in the theme. Why a theme by Handel? Beethoven revered him. On his own deathbed, Beethoven is reputed to have named Handel as the single greatest composer in history.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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