Yeah, I know. You’ve probably been hearing Beethoven on the radio, from your piano students, from your local orchestra, and from everyone who is scrambling to make Beethoven’s 250th anniversary a big deal (even though it’s not till December 2020). But have you heard this piece? I sure hadn’t. And I’m….really into Beethoven. If you’re all sitting there thinking “I know this, I’ve played this, I’ve taught this,” then bear with me in my discovery.
G. Henle Verlag has been doing a stellar job of celebrating Beethoven’s 250th from a publishing perspective, marketing their highly respected Beethoven publications. They have a new, work-in-progress complete edition of the sonatas with fingerings by Murray Perahia, and new editions of rarities like this variation set. Also included in the publication: the somewhat basic WoO 64 and the fairly well-known WoO 70 variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento.”
WoO 77 dates from 1801, a very productive period for Beethoven; in that year he also completed the First Symphony, two violin sonatas, and four piano sonatas including the Moonlight. The critical notes in the Henle edition mention that he first sketched the theme in the summer of 1800 and reused the opening in his Piano Sonata in B-flat, Op. 22, in bar 18 of the fourth movement, which he was working on around the same time. It’s just a tiny little quotation, but kind of an interesting detail.
About the opening of that theme: there’s a chromatic rising line in the middle voice, creating a sighing motive from G major to A minor, which I think is the biggest source of interest in the whole theme. It occurs three times total. But Beethoven was such a genius that he thought: “Meh, I don’t need to do anything with that lick.” And if you listen to the piece, you won’t hear that exact chromatic treatment until the coda, where the theme is restated semi-intact.
Here’s my rundown of the variations:
Var. I. Simple bass, simple 16th note figurations that create a little more flow.
Var. II. Lots of fun right off the bat, with a texture of triplet arpeggios occasionally intensified by Beethoven’s trademark sf marks. I can totally imagine this transcribed for string quartet, with everyone taking turns with these swooping gestures.
Var. III. Still thinking string quartet, the viola gets a nice solo here, wandering down into a rich lower range (until the cello takes over later). I like how Beethoven flips between florid writing and more plain rhythms in both parts.
Var. IV. The inevitable “minore” variation is set in stark octaves, with stern double-dotted rhythms. The last four bars have some nice angular lines to finish off the mood.
Var. V. The return to “maggiore” comes twinkling down from above, with some sweet two-voice counterpoint in the right hand dancing over a bass ostinato. The B section maintains the same texture, building excitement over a pedal tone for four bars.
Var. VI. Violin solo! Beethoven had titled this set “easy variations,” but that depends on your tempo for these scintillating 32nd-note scales. The music really takes flight, reaching its most intense point just in time for the coda.
Coda. This is one of the cutest things I’ve heard in any Beethoven piece. The theme returns with some slight alterations, and that rising chromatic line I made such a big deal about…it’s here and it sounds like it’s sad to have missed out on the variations! You hear it as 16ths, then as triplets, then as 32nds, as if begging to come out and play. The irony is that, in this process, the gesture basically does get its own variation.
Obviously it’s a minor work in the context of Beethoven’s output, but it’s just absolutely charming. While still not “easy,” it’s mostly sightreadable and an intermediate upper intermediate student could tackle Var. VI with practice.
Where to find it in print: