In his early Viennese years Beethoven satisfied popular demand for variations on operatic hit tunes with a stream of works involving his own instrument. And though the evidence is not watertight, the variations on the song ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’ (‘I am Kakadu the tailor’) from Wenzel Müller’s 1794 comic Singspiel Die Schwestern von Prag
(‘The sisters from Prague’), probably originated at this time. Two decades later, in 1816, Beethoven wrote to the Leipzig publisher Härtel offering ‘Variations with an introduction and supplement, for piano, violin and cello, on a well-known theme by Müller, one of my earlier compositions, though it is not among the reprehensible ones’. Wenzel’s opera was revived in Vienna in 1814. And this may well have prompted Beethoven to dust down and revise his youthful variations, taking account of the extended compass of the newest pianos and perhaps adding his ‘supplement’ (i.e. coda) plus the exaggeratedly sombre G minor introduction that gradually outlines the ‘Kakadu’ theme. When the naive, Papageno-ish tune emerges in full, in a blithe G major, it is with an absurd sense of anticlimax – the kind of comic deflation Dohnányi emulated a century later in his Variations on a Nursery Theme
. The variations broadly follow the traditional pattern by adorning the melody with increasingly brilliant figuration, though No 5, with its spare contrapuntal textures, and No 7, a delicate imitative duo for violin and cello alone, deconstruct rather than merely decorate the theme. After the traditional Adagio variation in the minor key, No 9, full of chromatic pathos (shades here of the slow introduction), and a jolly 6/8 variation, Beethoven launches a long and capricious coda by turning Müller’s ditty into a mock-learned fugato.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2003