The Kennedy Center

Variations in E-flat major, Op. 44

About the Work

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven when composing the Missa Solemnis Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Beethoven was born and grew up in the Rhineland town of Bonn, for centuries one of the most important seats of political power north of the Alps. Bonn was the residence of one of the Electors, the group of princes charged from the 14th century with selecting the head of the Holy Roman Empire, which, with one exception, had been a member of the Habsburg family since 1438. Beethoven's paternal grandfather, Ludwig, after whom the boy was named, served as Kapellmeister at the Bonn court after 1761, and two years later got his son, Johann, hired as a singer in the musical household. The child born to Johann and Maria Magdalena Beethoven on December 16, 1770 would, of course, follow in the family musical tradition for his vocation, and young Ludwig was trained in the discipline by various local teachers, though his liberal education was largely neglected. In 1784, the boy was appointed assistant to Christian Gottlob Neefe, the organist at the Electoral Chapel; Beethoven later added the posts of cembalist for the opera and composer to his court duties. It was Neefe who gave Ludwig a solid grounding in the theory of music, and encouraged him in writing his first compositions and developing his gift as a virtuoso pianist. In May 1787, Beethoven visited Vienna for the first time to play for Mozart (?Keep your eyes on him; some day he will give the world something to talk about,? Mozart predicted), but he had to rush back to Bonn in early July when his mother was taken mortally ill. Johann lost control of his life after his wife died: his fondness for drink turned into debilitating alcoholism, and Ludwig became virtual head of the household (there were two younger brothers, Caspar and Nikolaus) at the age of seventeen. Beethoven sought solace in the company of friends, especially the Breuning family, whom he called his ?guardian angels,? and Ferdinand Ernst Gabriel, Count Waldstein, who, by late 1792, had convinced the young musician to leave Bonn and settle in Vienna for good.

Though the music of Beethoven's youthful Bonn years does not bear comparison with the heaven-storming masterpieces of his later decades (he was 22 when he went to Vienna), it does show true talent for composition, a thorough understanding of the contemporary stylistic idioms, and occasional flashes of the brilliance to come. The Variations for Piano, Violin and Cello in E-flat major appears to have been written in 1792, shortly before Beethoven moved to Vienna. The piece acquired its artificially high (and potentially lucrative) opus number ? 44 ? when Franz Hoffmeister published the score in Leipzig in 1804. The theme, original with Beethoven, is a skeletal affair, simply outlining the harmonic changes without providing a distinct melody. (The finale of the ?Eroica,? also in variation form, begins in a similar manner.) Beethoven worked fourteen conventional variations and a coda upon this lean material, allowing all three instruments leading moments (though the piano, his instrument, is always primus inter pares ) and eliciting some deeper emotions with two minor-key episodes.