Beethoven Variations in E-flat piano trio, op. 44

performed by Trio Wanderer, or below by the Castle Trio, on period instruments

(cover image by Martin Oslic)

More Beethoven!

Today’s work acts as sort of an introduction to what we’ll be doing in the month of August, similar to what we did last August, so if you’re reading this after the fact, know that there’s a whole month of works from August 2016 that focused on a violin sonata, concerto and string quartet from specific composers to go back and read, and that August 2017 features a violin sonata, cello sonata, and chamber work of some kind from a number of composers, and that this actually bleeds over into September. There will be six composers in total featured in this little bundle, two of whom we haven’t seen in years on the blog, another who is making his first, much-anticipated appearance, so do stay tuned for that.

I’m eager to get through Beethoven’s earliest works, which you might have noticed, and we’ve done pretty well, having covered most of the first ten opus numbers, as well as a few in the teens, but if you take a look at his output chronologically, you’ll notice that there are some quite high opus numbers that show up quite early in his career. The opus 103, for example, is an octet for winds that he wrote in 1792, but it wasn’t published until 1834, a number of year’s after the composer’s death.

Today’s piece is similar. Despite having an opus number of 44 and a publishing date of 1804, which you would think puts it as a contemporary of the Prometheus overture, op. 43, or the third piano concerto, op. 37, but nope.

It was composed around 1792, but not published until more than a decade after it’s completion. It’s listed among his piano trios, the numbering of which is problematic. The first three, op. 1, are obviously numbered 1, 2 and 3, but that’s about the point at which it breaks down. The fourth (?) op. 11, was written for piano, clarinet and cello, but the clarinet is sometimes (often?) now replaced by violin for the true piano trio roster. For that reason then, it’s sort of not really counted as ‘no. 4.’

After that are the two more nontraditional trios, this one, and the op. 63, which is an arrangement of the op. 4 string quintet, which itself is adapted from that op. 103 octet I mentioned above. It’s not until op. 70, then, that we get to the next two actual piano trios, followed by the one op. 97, and these three are labeled as 5-7 with question marks next to each one on Wikipedia. The Kakadu variations, op. 121a, are also for piano trio, of 1824.

But back to this work, it’s one of those in that backlog of early, displaced works due to its later publishing date, so it’s appropriate that we get around to discussing it before others, like the third string trio of op. 9, or even the op. 5 cello sonatas.

The theme on which the 14 variations of this work are based comes from Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Singspiel Das rote Käppchen (The Red Cap), premiered in Vienna in 1788 and being performed in Bonn in 1792, apparently just months before Beethoven left. He decided on a line from one of the more famous arias, with the line Ja, ich muss mich von ihr scheiden[1] (Yes, I must leave her), which seems like an interesting choice. Hopefully he just really enjoyed the melody. 

The work begins almost boringly, with arpeggios played in unison by all three instruments. In fact, Richard Wigmore writes for Hyperion that:

Dittersdorf’s comically rudimentary tune is a vision of dry bones, as bare as the famous ‘Eroica’ theme which it faintly resembles.

This is certainly a straightforward beginning, but as you likely already know, Beethoven was a master of variations, and manages to change things up at each go without obscuring the ties to the original theme.

As Naxos program notes point out, the first theme focuses on the piano, with strings taking a subsidiary role, and the second is for piano alone. It’s a good idea to let the piano “embellish the melody” as Naxos says, for there isn’t much to work with, it would seem.

Both of the above sources describe each individual variation, the third involving triplets, the fourth centering on cello, the seventh a largo, etc., and you can go find those specific descriptions, but can you hear them as they come and go, without the notes? I’ve already given you a few of them, so you know the solo piano is the second, and can identify the fourth, probably, but identifying each of the variations requires knowing what makes each of them distinct from what comes before and after. When does something change? But how is it also the same?

Interestingly, you’ll notice as you listen, that they’re not developed like you might think of a long single line or progression of an idea from a sonata-form movement. There’s a youthful freeness here, like a dozen-plus ideas vying for attention, the next jumping in as soon as one takes a breath to continue, cutting in one after the other in what’s essentially a continuation of the same thought with a different face on it.

Listen for the transition from the fourth to the fifth or seventh to the eighth variations for how the piece transitions, respectively, to quite similar or quite different ideas. The beginning of the ninth is also noticeable. In listening, one may naturally group the variations into larger sections that seem to fit with certain others in the procession, but essentially, they all stem from the same idea.

Aside from that little listening project, if you’ve listened to and are familiar with some of the other early Beethoven works, like the opus 1 trios or early sonatas, or many others, you may also detect the same kind of youthfulness in this writing. It’s clearly an early piece, and it doesn’t dig deep to make any enormous statements about humanity or carve its name into the granite rock of history, but it has the characteristic vibrance and musicality of the young composer we know and love.

The last handful of variations are, at least in my mind, by far the most interesting. That being said, though, despite the piece’s charm, it’s not really a surprise that it might not be seen as often on concert programs as other works. The op. 1 piano trios have much more to offer as mature pieces, structured more seriously, but as a 12-minute piece, it may make a nice addition to a program of works for piano trio. I dare not use the word ‘filler’, but if a third, smaller work were to be needed for a program, this piece could certainly be a delightful if not a slightly lightweight choice.

But that’s that. I’m eager to fill out the earlier pieces from Beethoven’s pen before continuing on with the sixth symphony, fifth concerto, the op. 18 quartets, and the other more famous forms. There’s tons of stuff before these larger-scale works that we should be spending more time on. Think of all the sonatas (for piano, or violin, or cello) that Beethoven had written before even his third symphony… so we have a lot of catching up to do before we touch the late symphonies, the final piano concerto, or even the violin concerto. Lots of stuff.

But all in good time. We’ll get there eventually. In the meantime, here’s another little gem to enjoy from him. As I mentioned above, lined up for this month and the beginning of the next, we have a violin sonata, cello sonata, and some kind of chamber work (all but the first being string quartets) for six composers in the next six weeks. Spoiler alert: the first of those is Brahms. It seemed like an appropriate thing after such large pieces as operas in July, and it’ll carry us through into mid-September, actually, but there’s a much-anticipated (that’s the second time I’ve said that in this article!) event coming up at the beginning of September, another milestone, which we shall suitably mark, as part of this series, so do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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