Beethoven: Variations on a March by E.C.Dressler in Cm, WoO 63

performed by Mikhail Pletnev

… there’s too much music to talk about to separate this stuff into posts.
As we did in our treatment of Mozart for the past week (more), we’re going to get through a few early pieces of Beethoven in the next week or so.
I managed to find out by reading the interwebs somewhere that this WoO was apparently one of the earliest things the young Beethoven wrote, if not the earliest. It is assigned in some textbooks or history books or whatever to the year 1782. There’s a lot more information on it at this fine little website, and I’ll be referring to it a bit below.
In any case, this is our jumping off point, a seven-minute little set of piano variations, and then we’re off to tackle all of both opus 1 and 2 before jumping to op. 19. I considered for a brief moment pushing everything else back and including op. 7, 10, 11, 13, and/or 14 somehow, but it seems that’s just not going to happen. We’ll get around to those all at some other date. This is plenty for now.
We’ve done the first three of Beethoven’s symphonies and his first (C major) piano concerto, but as with Mozart, it’s time to start getting around to other things.
The impetus for this series was Beethoven’s second piano concerto, op. 19, and then I thought we could do a little series of his earliest stuff, so it was convenient enough to pick up his op. 1 piano trios, and then I came across the Dressler variations, so they got added to the list.
Then I thought that he should be allowed some sonatas like Mozart, and conveniently enough, there were three in the op. 2 position, so they got added to the list, and just like that we had eight Beethoven piano works of various forms to discuss, and that will put a dent in the earliest of his compositions. We’ll get around to some of the other earliest stuff (string works and other piano sonatas) later.
So, Dressler is a guy who was a conductor and opera singer, died at only 45 years old, and whose most famous composition was made so by Beethoven’s composition here. That’s I know, and it’s frankly all I’m really interested in. I am curious as to why this piece itself was chosen, but it isn’t terribly important for the 11-12-however-year old.
What is interesting is that some of the minor choices here seemed to be things that showed up again and again in the composer’s mature work: the key of Cm, the theme-and-variations idea, and the use of a march.
Granted, this doesn’t hold a candle to his mature compositions, but apparently a decade or more later, he was willing to publish the piece with only a small handful of changes (made by someone,
perhaps not even him) for whatever fee he could get for it. In any case, despite the fact that it gets criticized because many of the variations are quite similar and it doesn’t have a big, fancy virtuosic ending, it was written by a stinking eleven year old.
What were you doing at eleven years old?
Mozart was apparently busy writing plagiarized piano concertos and an opera.
That being said, while it might not stand up to the scrutiny that people are used to giving the composer’s mature works, it has a certain something to it that still makes it an enjoyable, moving little piece of music.
Now, I’m not sure how much the charm and depth of the piece stems from the magic of the theme that Dressler originally composed, but it seems everything the young Beethoven does with it here, while not really covering a ton of ground in these seven minutes and nine little variations, I have listened to it many many times, and I find it quite enjoyable. It’s in Cm, and most of it has a rather solemn tone that one would expect in a minor key, but it has its brighter moments.
Something that’s quite nice about this piece, I think, is that the themes themselves are quite short, easily distinguishable and very related to the opening original theme. It’s also only a seven-minute piece, so shouldn’t test even the most basic beginner’s patience. A few of the middle variations seem quite virtuosic for an eleven-year-old. How big are an eleven year old’s hands, anyway? I know nothing about kids. Let’s keep it that way.
In any case, this is the beginning of a compact, quick series of Beethoven’s earliest compositions that revolve around the piano: these variations, three piano trios, three piano sonatas and then we jump ahead to a piano concerto. Stay tuned, and keep up-to-date. New post every day for the next week.

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