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The art of variation lies at the heart of much music, including that of Beethoven, who practised this demanding technique as both performer and composer at many stages throughout his career. For his ‘Eroica’ Variations Beethoven used a theme originally written for his ballet music from The Creatures of Prometheus which he later incorporated into his Third Symphony. Other variations, whether based on the music of his contemporaries or of his own invention, such as the famous Turkish March from The Ruins of Athens, provide considerable insights to Beethoven’s much vaunted virtuosity and profound creativity. The Korean pianist Ian Yungwook Yoo is the recipient of many prizes including the 2007 Beethoven Competition in Bonn and the 1998 Santander International Piano Competition.
By Brent Auerbach
American Record Guide
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of a singer in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and grandson of the Archbishop’s former Kapellmeister, whose name he took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven’s father became increasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with his wife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father. Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and duly entered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as a string-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning some distinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study with Mozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture and her subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, in view of his father’s domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven was sent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.
Beethoven’s early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by the circumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress Maria Theresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in the imperial capital. Here Beethoven was able to establish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability, coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisation and composition. The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony of Fate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer and into an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes and extensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate his eccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the same time it allowed him to develop his gifts for counterpoint. He continued to revolutionise forms inherited from his predecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, expanding these almost to bursting-point, and introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. He died in 1827, his death the occasion of public mourning in Vienna.
The art of variation lies at the heart of a great deal of music. Extended works may include movements consisting of variations, whether so titled or not. In improvisation variation is essential, since a performer was, and is, often obliged to offer variations on a given theme as a demonstration of this skill. Beethoven’s earliest variations date from 1782 when he wrote a set of variations on a theme by the singer Ernst Christoph Dressler. His last set of variations for the piano were completed in 1823, the Diabelli Variations on a waltz by the composer and publisher Anton Diabelli.
In 1802 and 1803 Beethoven was working on his third symphony, a work initially intended as a tribute to Napoleon. On the news in 1804 that Napoleon had been crowned Emperor, he is said to have destroyed the first page, with its dedication, seeing in his former republican hero a man who was like the rest. For the last movement of what is now known as the Eroica Symphony Beethoven presented a set of seven variations and a fugue, using a theme he had written for Salvatore Viganò’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus in 1801. The Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat major on an Original Theme, Op. 35, using the Prometheus theme and written in 1802, have long been known as the Eroica Variations, a title borrowed from the symphony. The work was dedicated to count Moritz Lichnowsky, brother of Beethoven’s generous patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky. In an Introduction the bass of the theme is heard, followed by a version a due, the bass in the left hand. In the next version, a tre, the bass is in the right hand, while the left adds a counterpoint above and below. The following version, a quattro, has the original bass in the upper part in a more elaborate texture. This leads to the familiar theme itself. The first variation of the theme offers a semiquaver right-hand version of the theme, followed by a triplet semiquaver version, including a brief cadenza. An abrupt third variation leads to a fourth with a running semiquaver left-hand part and right-hand chords, with a syncopated fifth variation. The theme is heard with great clarity in the sixth variation, while the seventh is in canon at the octave. The hand-crossing of the eighth variation is succeeded by a ninth version in which the bass of the theme is heard in lower register grace notes while the tenth brings a division of labour. The following three variations explore other keyboard sonorities before the penultimate E flat minor fourteenth version and the ornamented Largo of the E flat major fifteenth. The fugal subject, the bass of the theme, is announced by the second voice, answered by the upper voice and followed by a third entry in the lower register. The fugal texture is interrupted by a passage that leads to the return of the full theme and its subsequent elaboration in a brilliant conclusion.
The Twelve Variations on the ‘Menuett à la Viganò‘ from Jakob Haibel’s ‘Le nozze disturbate‘, WoO 68, was written in 1795. Haibel, who later married Constanze Mozart’s younger sister, Sophie Weber, was a member of Emanuel Schikaneder’s company at the Vienna Freihaus-Theater auf der Wieden, where Mozart’s last opera Die Zauberflöte had been staged. His ballet-pantomime Le nozze disturbate, or Die unterbrochene Hochzeit (The Interrupted Marriage) was staged at the theatre in 1795 by Schikaneder and enjoyed contemporary success. The famous dancer and choreographer Salvatore Viganò, Boccherini’s nephew, was in Vienna at the same time. The C major theme, also used for variations by other composers, is simple enough and the variations include a fourth and seventh in C minor and end with a twelfth version marked Allegro, capped by a final short Adagio coda and a pianissimo ending.
A pupil of Haydn and a friend of Beethoven, the violinist, conductor and composer Paul Wranitzky was of contemporary importance in the musical life of Vienna. His Singspiel Oberon served as a model for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and his ballet Das Waldmädchen (La selvaggia) was staged in Vienna at the Kärntnertortheater in 1796. The theme taken by Beethoven for his Twelve Variations on the Russian Dance from Wranitzky’s ‘Das Waldmädchen’, WoO 71, written in 1796–97, is in fact by the seemingly Italian Giovanni Giornovichi, distinguished as a violinist, composer and billiards-player and for his quarrelsome temperament, who, in a peripatetic career, served for a time at the court of Catherine the Great in St Petersburg, where he died in 1804. Beethoven’s variations were dedicated to Countess von Browne, wife of the Russian ambassador in Vienna. The A major theme is marked Allegretto and the variations again include a third and a seventh in the tonic minor key, with an eleventh also in A minor. The final 6/8 extended variation includes a dramatic coda, leading to the return of the original key and the compound metre with which it had begun.
Antonio Salieri held an influential position in the musical life of Vienna, where he had settled in 1766, to become court composer and conductor of the Italian opera eight years later. Salieri’s operas enjoyed very considerable contemporary success. His Falstaff, based on Shakespeare, was staged in Vienna in 1799, the year of Beethoven’s Ten Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’, WoO 73, dedicated to his pupil Countess Babette von Keglevics. The theme is taken from the duettino in Act I, where Mistress Ford and Mistress Slender compare the letters they have received from Falstaff, and find them identical. The variations start with chromatic scales, accompanying the outline of the melody, and a semiquaver variation is followed by syncopation, then triplets, before a fifth variation in the minor. The set ends with an Allegretto, Alla austriaca, and a cadenza leading to the return of the theme.
The F major Eight Variations on ‘Tändeln und Scherzen’ from Franz Xaver Süssmayr’s ‘Soliman II’, WoO 76, were also written in 1799 and dedicated to Countess von Browne. Mozart’s pupil Süssmayr’s Singspiel Soliman der zweite oder Die drei Sultanninen, based on Favart, was staged at the Kärntnertortheater in the same year. The theme, marked Andante, quasi Allegretto is heard, with the first three variations in semiquavers, triplets and with syncopation, respectively. Arpeggios introduce the fourth variation, with a fifth in D minor leading directly to the sixth, in B flat major. The seventh version of the theme is marked Molto adagio ed espressivo, to be followed by an Allegro vivace apt for the flirtation and joking of the borrowed theme.
Beethoven’s Six Variations in D major, Op. 76, were written in 1809 and dedicated to his friend Franz Oliva, who had been helpful to him in business matters. The familiar theme was used for the Turkish March in Beethoven’s The Ruins of Athens two years later. The first variation is in semiquavers, the second introduces syncopation and the third is in 6/8, reverting to duple metre in the fourth. Semiquavers mark the fifth variation, with the sixth marked Presto and leading to the return of the theme.
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