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Beethoven’s insistence on the novelty-value of the two variation-sets was no mere piece of salesmanship: both show a wilful determination to be original from the very outset. In the ‘Eroica’ set Op 35 three variations on the skeletal bass-line of the theme run their course before the melody itself is heard at all, while the Op 34 companion-piece throws most of the basic tenets of variation writing out of the window altogether: rather than maintain the same key and tempo for the successive variations, which is the normal procedure in works of the kind, Beethoven presents a series of character-pieces each of which unfolds in a different key, metre and tempo.
The overall plan of the Op 34 Variations is highly schematic, with their keys describing a descending circle of thirds, from the F major theme itself, through the D major, G major, E flat major and C minor of the following variations. The last of these has a miniature coda which prepares the return of the home key for the concluding variation, before the work comes to an end with an intricately ornamented, and slower, reprise of the theme itself.
While the first variation is an Adagio of the kind we might have expected to hear only towards the end of a set of variations, Variation 2 presents the type of rhythmic transformation traditionally invoked for the coda of a work of the kind. The third variation 3, with its gently flowing quaver motion, presents a strong contrast to the sharply articulated rhythm of its predecessor; while Variation 4 is a gracious minuet. Variation 5 is a C minor funeral march, complete with explosive outbursts in orchestral style—a hint, perhaps, that the ‘Eroica’ Symphony was on the horizon; while the final variation transforms the theme into a good-natured melody of folk-like simplicity. The full-scale reprise of the theme that follows reaches a climax with a hint of a cadenza, before the elaborate flights of fancy are shrugged off with the simplest of conclusions.
from notes by Misha Donat © 2018
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