Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven wrote many sets of variations for piano. His source material showing an interesting evolution, moving from the themes of popular operas of his day (Ten Variations for Piano, in B flat major, on Salieri's La Stessa, le Stessissima, from Falstaff, WoO 73) to variations on his own themes (Six Variations on an Original Theme, in F, Op. 34) as well as on British patriotic themes as here (and in Seven Variations on God Save the King, in C major, WoO 78), and finally on to the more complex world of the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, in C major, Op. 120.

The Rule, Britannia Variations came on the heels of the Variations on God Save the King (1802 - 1803). While Beethoven may still have been an admirer of Napoleon around this time, he also was attracted to British culture, which in part may explain the existence of these two sets. In 1813, a decade after he had turned against Napoleon, he wrote the orchestral piece Wellington's Victory, using the themes of both these British-inspired variation sets.

The Rule, Britannia theme is well enough known today, but at the time this piece was written it was not nearly as universal; it might have been quite obscure in faraway Vienna. Exactly what prompted Beethoven to turn out these variations and the set based on God Save the King is not known, but certainly he must have believed that the themes were not overly familiar or hackneyed-sounding.

The present work begins with a light and rather polite presentation of the theme, then follows with a lively variation, beginning in the lower register, that sounds quite different in character from the source melody. The next variation is fast, but the theme is easily recognized amid the bustle and abundant colors. The husky fourth variation is the most serious-sounding one (and perhaps the most humorous, as well), while the fifth is the lightest and most exciting. All in all, the music is colorful and lively, and contains much brilliant keyboard writing. Still, the verdict must be that the effort overall is at best a minor one, divulging little innovation in the character of the variations. In fact, this work looks backward in style. This variation set was first published in Vienna in 1804 and carries no dedication. A typical performance of it lasts about four minutes.