In a letter dated March, 1819, to his close friend Ferdinand Ries, Beethoven, in speaking of the recently completed monumental Hammerklavier Sonata, wrote, "The Sonata was composed under distressful circumstances, for it is hard to write almost for the sake of bread alone, and to this pass I have come." Indeed, in almost all the Beethoven letters of this period, one comes across the same complaint in various forms; namely, that the composer was compelled to do a lot of "scribbling" for the sake of money in order to procure leisure for great works. In addition to the hackwork, some of the "distressful circumstances" mentioned above included the tragically drawn-out legal suit Beethoven was bringing against his widowed sister-in-law in order to gain custody of his nephew Karl. Admirers of the composer's genius are rarely surprised, therefore, at the outbursts of demonic strength exhibited in some of the major works of the 1818-23 period: it is almost as if Beethoven were seeking some sort of heroic release from the pitiful circumstances of his private life.
And yet, a selfish posterity is grateful for the pitiful circumstances which compelled Beethoven to seek release in his art. It is even grateful that the composer had "to write almost for the sake of bread alone," for to the group of hackwork "scribblings" dating from this period we owe one of Beethoven's most charming and uncharacteristic works, the Ten Varied Themes for Pianoforte with optional accompaniment of flute or violin, Op. 107. The history of this delicious masterpiece in small is as follows:
On January 1, 1816, Beethoven's English publisher George Thomson wrote the composer and asked him to send him some specimen airs from Germany, Poland, Russia, the Tyrol, Venice, and Spain. Previously, Beethoven had done some work on selected British airs for Thomson and this had stimulated his interest in this particular branch of music. Thus had the idea come into being of some arrangements for trio of the folksongs of various nationalities. Beethoven was delighted with Thomson's request and on the following July 8th, sent him eighteen such airs, following this up shortly afterwards with one more.
According to C. B. Oldman ("Beethoven's Variations on National Themes: Their Composition and First Publication," Music Review, XII, 1951, pp. 45-51—summarized as one of Elliot Forbes' emendations to the masterly Thayer biography, Vol. II, p. 716), Thomson's subsequent request that Beethoven construct six potpourri overtures "for the pianoforte with these melodies as a basis" was humorously rejected by the composer. A later request from another publisher, Birchall, for "variations for favorite English, Scottish, and Irish airs," also came to nothing. Finally, on June 25, 1817, Thomson offered 72 ducats for variations (not more than eight) on any twelve of the airs "in an agreeable style and not too difficult."
When Beethoven finally answered (on February 21, 1818), it was with a counter-proposal that he compose twelve themes with variations either separately or simultaneously with twelve potpourri overtures, for the sum of 224 ducats.
Thomson's reply was to the effect that the composer could choose the majority of his themes from the Scottish airs which he already had harmonized and add a flute part ad libitum to the accompaniment. The publisher added, rather naively: And it would be quite desirable if you wrote the variations in a style that is familiar and easy and a bit brilliant, so that the majority of our ladies may play them and relish them." Whatever Beethoven may have thought of his publisher's advice, we know from the music that he complied with Thomson's requests to the letter, composing in all sixteen Themes and Variations on folk-song material. According to Thayer, six of them were published by Artaria in Vienna (Op. 105) and the other ten by Simrock in Bonn. (Op. 107).
In 1941, Breitkopf and Härtel brought out the numbers of Op. 107 in a rather expensive five-volume set (2 themes apiece). This is to be regretted, as the interested student, listener, and/or performer has no alternative, if he wishes to obtain the work, but to acquire Volume 19 of the Breitkopf Complete Works or the separate Breitkopf edition (which, incidentally, is difficult to get hold of). Possibly this accounts for the relative neglect which Beethoven's folk-song potpourris have been subjected to since their initial appearance. As was mentioned earlier, Op. 107 is a lovely and delightful work, made doubly interesting by the massive opus (the Hammerklavier) which it chronologically follows. In other words, it is fascinating to compare the piano writing, the emotional and technical resources of the folk-song potpourris to the deliberate aesthetic of the flawed masterpiece composed almost simultaneously with them. In the Hammerklavier, Beethoven, as had previously been the case with the Eroica Symphony, consciously tried to break with his artistic past and create something grander, more stirring, more resourceful than he had hitherto produced. Thus, to a friend who told the composer early in 1818 how moved he had been by a performance of the youthful Septet, Op. 20, Beethoven replied ". . . at that time [i.e. the year Op. 20 first appeared] I scarcely knew how to compose. Now [with the production of Op. 106] I am much more knowledgable." (!) One is reminded of Beethoven's remark after the composition of the great C sharp minor String Quartet: "Thank God there is less a lack of fancy than before!"
Thank God, too, that he saw fit to "relax" artistically, so to speak, after his most ambitious creations. To this "fancy" we owe the brilliant piano writing, the lovely flute/violin embellishments, the daring (extremely so) harmonic touches to be found in the Ten Varied Themes. Of the three versions in which the work may be found —piano solo, piano with violin or flute accompaniment—this writer prefers the one recorded here, as the piano/ flute combination generally called forth Beethoven's most exquisite coloristic experiments. For example, the careful listener should pay particular attention to the alternations of B Flat/C Flat in the opening variation of the ninth set and to the later alternations of FAG Flat in the same movement. The crowning variation of the entire work is unquestionably the penultimate one, which contains florid piano writing (Adagio espressivo) comparable to the great variation sets that followed: namely, the slow movements of Opp. 109, 111, and the Variations Nos. 29-31 of the Diabelli set. Altogether, an unjustly neglected representative of the composer's "unbuttoned" (the word is Beethoven's own) artistic moods.
- Warren Thew, Piano
- Raymond Meylan, Flute
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - I Air Tyrolian
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - II Air Ecossais
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - III Air de la Petite Russie
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - IV Air Ecossais
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - V Air Tyrolian
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - VI Air Ecossais
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - VII Air Russe
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - VIII Air Ecossais
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - IX Air Ecossais
- 10 Varied Themes for Flute and Piano - X Air Ecossais
Other Recordings by these Performers:
- Max Kuhn, Joseph Haydn: Piano Concertos
- Piano Concertos by Joseph Haydn & Max Kuhn
- Bernard Reichel: Intrada, Pièce concertante, Suite de danses, Suite pour orchestre de chambre
- Bernard Reichel: Concertino pour piano et orchestre; Rhapsodie pour flûte et orchestre; Sonata en trio; Octuor
- Oeuvres de Bernard Reichel