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6 Variations on an original theme in F major, Op 34

composer

 
On 18 October 1802, barely a fortnight after had had penned his famous ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, in which he confessed that his deafness had brought him to the brink of suicide, Beethoven wrote to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel offering them two newly-composed sets of variations which were, he assured them, quite unlike any he had ever composed before. Both, he claimed, were written 'in a quite new style and each in an entirely different way. Each theme in them is treated independently and in a wholly different manner. As a rule I only hear of it from others when I have new ideas, since I never know it myself; but this time—I myself can assure you that in both works the style is quite new for me.'

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

Recordings

Beethoven: Beethoven Unbound
Studio Master: SIGCD527Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

Track 4 on SIGCD527 CD2 [13'12] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD527 disc 2 track 4

Artists
ISRC
GB-LLH-18-52716
Duration
13'12
Recording date
25 February 2015
Recording venue
Wigmore Hall, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Judith Sherman
Recording engineer
Simon Vout
Hyperion usage
  1. Beethoven: Beethoven Unbound (SIGCD527)
    Disc 2 Track 4
    Release date: March 2018
    Download only
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