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Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat Op.35 'Eroica Variations'

Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)

Tamar Beraia

Tamar Beraia

Composer
Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
Composition Year
1770-1827
Artists
Tamar Beraia [piano]

Programme Note Writer:
© David Winter

Beethoven wanted these variations to be called the Prometheus variations since he had already used their famous theme in his Creatures of Prometheus ballet music. He even offered to pay the publishers to include the reference to Prometheus on the title page. However immediately after composing these Op.35 variations, Beethoven started working on the Eroica Symphony. The finale of this symphony consists of six variations on exactly the same theme. Once the Eroica Symphony had established its reputation, these piano variations became widely known as the Eroica Variations.

The main point of similarity between the two sets of variations is that in both Beethoven begins radically to change the nature of the variation form. His earlier variations start with a theme, which is varied a number of times with the theme returning at the end. Here Beethoven abandons this circular structure. These variations are now journeys through many and varied musical landscapes. We never return to the beginning. By the end of the variations we are in an entirely new place. Certainly the theme is still present, but more as a reassuring friend as the music becomes wilder and more astonishing.

The Op.35 Variations are the longest and most substantial variations that Beethoven composed until he returned to the form in his later years.  Written in the summer of 1802, they coincide with the great turmoil Beethoven experienced as he realised his deafness would only get worse. This provoked his astonishing determination to continue composing despite his deafness. His response was to compose, in addition to these Variations, a number of extraordinary orchestral works including the Second and Third Symphonies.

The delightfully simple opening using only the theme’s bass line continues for three variations. Only then does the theme make a graceful entry with a full harmonic accompaniment. There are three repeated notes which appear both at the end of the first part of the tune and, more prominently, at the beginning of the second part. These three notes are part of the bass line that opens the work and are given due emphasis by Beethoven. Thereafter they make frequent appearances throughout the work.

The journey begins, as most journeys do, in a mood of high spirits. The first few variations are brilliant and witty.  By variation five which is played softly throughout, a more thoughtful mood has appeared. By variation eight with the left hand crossing over the right, we are in a new world of calm beauty. This does not last long and in variation thirteen an accidental in the treble sounds almost like a bird chirping. By variation fourteen which is in the minor key the whole structure of the work has begun to change. This austere variation has no repeats and leads into the Largo fifteenth variation where Beethoven’s improvisatory imagination takes over.  This is by far the longest variation and the music is now open to almost any possibility. Finally the return of the theme signals the transition to the fugal finale.

After a lively journey the short fugue, derived from the bass line, concludes with three loud chords. The tempo slows as if to repeat the theme for one more time but in fact the music takes off for another variation. A series of magical trills gives the music an almost transcendental quality. The theme does appear once more in a light hearted vein and with successive compressions of its phrases, it brings this extraordinary work to a boisterous conclusion.

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Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat Op.35 'Eroica Variations'

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
Performance date: Saturday 2nd July 2016
Venue: St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland

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Composer Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
Work Title Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat Op.35 'Eroica Variations'
Composition Year 1770-1827
Artist(s) Tamar Beraia [piano]
Performance Date Saturday 2nd July 2016
Performance Venue St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland
Event Crespo Series
Duration 00:22:03
Recording Engineer Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category Solo
Instrumentation pf
Programme Note Writer © David Winter

Beethoven wanted these variations to be called the Prometheus variations since he had already used their famous theme in his Creatures of Prometheus ballet music. He even offered to pay the publishers to include the reference to Prometheus on the title page. However immediately after composing these Op.35 variations, Beethoven started working on the Eroica Symphony. The finale of this symphony consists of six variations on exactly the same theme. Once the Eroica Symphony had established its reputation, these piano variations became widely known as the Eroica Variations.

The main point of similarity between the two sets of variations is that in both Beethoven begins radically to change the nature of the variation form. His earlier variations start with a theme, which is varied a number of times with the theme returning at the end. Here Beethoven abandons this circular structure. These variations are now journeys through many and varied musical landscapes. We never return to the beginning. By the end of the variations we are in an entirely new place. Certainly the theme is still present, but more as a reassuring friend as the music becomes wilder and more astonishing.

The Op.35 Variations are the longest and most substantial variations that Beethoven composed until he returned to the form in his later years.  Written in the summer of 1802, they coincide with the great turmoil Beethoven experienced as he realised his deafness would only get worse. This provoked his astonishing determination to continue composing despite his deafness. His response was to compose, in addition to these Variations, a number of extraordinary orchestral works including the Second and Third Symphonies.

The delightfully simple opening using only the theme’s bass line continues for three variations. Only then does the theme make a graceful entry with a full harmonic accompaniment. There are three repeated notes which appear both at the end of the first part of the tune and, more prominently, at the beginning of the second part. These three notes are part of the bass line that opens the work and are given due emphasis by Beethoven. Thereafter they make frequent appearances throughout the work.

The journey begins, as most journeys do, in a mood of high spirits. The first few variations are brilliant and witty.  By variation five which is played softly throughout, a more thoughtful mood has appeared. By variation eight with the left hand crossing over the right, we are in a new world of calm beauty. This does not last long and in variation thirteen an accidental in the treble sounds almost like a bird chirping. By variation fourteen which is in the minor key the whole structure of the work has begun to change. This austere variation has no repeats and leads into the Largo fifteenth variation where Beethoven’s improvisatory imagination takes over.  This is by far the longest variation and the music is now open to almost any possibility. Finally the return of the theme signals the transition to the fugal finale.

After a lively journey the short fugue, derived from the bass line, concludes with three loud chords. The tempo slows as if to repeat the theme for one more time but in fact the music takes off for another variation. A series of magical trills gives the music an almost transcendental quality. The theme does appear once more in a light hearted vein and with successive compressions of its phrases, it brings this extraordinary work to a boisterous conclusion.