In the piano music of Ludwig van Beethoven his variations are equally important as his sonatas. The first work by the twelve-year-old Beethoven was Variations on a March by Dressler, while the Diabelli Variations which appeared forty years later concluded the composer’s creative path.
Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor were written at the dawn of his artistic life. At the same time he wrote the Russian quartets, his Fourth Symphony and a violin concerto. Compact, the theme lasting eight bars forms the basis of the work, where the focus of the idea is close and extreme – the entire cycle lasts no longer than ten minutes. The sources of the theme lie in the music of the baroque, of which we are reminded by the rhythm of the sarabande, the dropping line of the bass and the impetuous tiratas of the upper voice. Each element of the theme is given its own character variation. As a whole, the cycle is supported by the eight-bar structure which is retained until the final variation and the unchanging C Minor key – the same tonality as the Pathétique sonata and the Fifth Symphony: it is only for a brief period that it is replaced by C Major.
The seventeen-year-old Frédéric Chopin’s variations on a theme from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni was the composer’s first work in a major form. Initially the variations were written for piano and orchestra – that is how they were performed by the composer at the premiere. In as much as Chopin had little to no interest in the expressive possibilities of the orchestra he often performed the variations unaccompanied.
The character of the piano part gives us an idea of the young Chopin’s dazzling expressive technique. The theme of the duet of Zerlina and Don Giovanni is given an introduction. Four variations develop the material of the theme in a virtuoso manner, and in the fifth the movement slows down and dramatic intonations appear. The cycle concludes with a bravura coda in the rhythm of a polonaise. Several years later Robert Schumann, having discovered Chopin’s variations, famously said: “Hats off, gentlemen! You have a genius before you!”
Franz Liszt’s Consolations are pieces at an unhurried pace with a cantilena-like melody, close in terms of character to nocturnes. Liszt was inspired to use the unusual title by the poem Une Larme, ou consolation by French romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine. The third piece (the most popular in the cycle) reminds us of Chopin’s nocturnes and, perhaps, was conceived as a tribute in memory of the composer.
The Hungarian Rhapsodies is one of Liszt’s “calling cards”. He was famed as a pianist not least because of his effective performance of these virtuoso pieces. In the 20th century the music of Rhapsody No 2 was used in Disney cartoons and became part of popular culture. The rhapsody has two sections – slow and fast, which corresponds with the structure of the Hungarian folk dance the verbunkos. The second rhapsody went on to become a favourite work in the repertoires of many pianists. It was frequently performed by Sergei Rachmaninoff, who wrote an original cadenza for the rhapsody.
The two-part Sonata No 32, the last in a series of piano sonatas by Beethoven, embodies his idea of “from darkness to light, through struggle to victory” in the purest sense. The first part is written in a gloomy C Minor key. It begins with a pathйtique introduction reminiscent of a French overture. This is followed by a fugato – it is possibly this sonata by Beethoven that gave the Romantics – including Liszt and Berlioz – the idea of infernal fugues. Beethoven suddenly abandoned strict polyphonic structure with its idea of the peripeteia of life’s struggles and interspersed it with lyrical and fantastical music.
The second part is an Arietta and Variations in C Major. Towards the end, the lofty and simple theme of the arietta resounds like a church hymn. Through the variations, the theme is gradually surrounded by a cloud of ornamentation. The musical fabric literally dematerialises in the smallest and briefest of notes that have terrified entire generations of pianists.
The sonata was completed in 1822 and was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron the Archduke Rudolf. It may be true that the London version came with a dedication to Antonia Brentano, but such things often occurred with Beethoven’s music.