The Kennedy Center

Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 121a "Kakadu"

About the Work

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

Wenzel Müller (1759-1835), conductor of the Leopoldstadt Theater in Vienna for many years and one of the most prolific composers of stage music in the decades around the turn of the 19th century, introduced his Singspiel Die Schwestern von Prag ("The Sisters from Prague") on March 11, 1794. The work enjoyed sufficient success to remain in the theater's repertory until about 1814. Beethoven came to know one of the show's hit tunes, Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu ("I am the Tailor Kakadu"), while the operetta was still popular, and he composed a set of variations on the melody at some unknown time before 1816, perhaps as early as 1803. On July 19, 1816, he wrote to the publisher Breitkopf und Härtel offering to sell them "Variations with an Introduction and opening for piano, violin and violoncello on a familiar Müller theme. They belong to my earlier works, but they are not poor stuff." Breitkopf, however, showed no interest in issuing the "Kakadu" variations, and the work was not published until 1823 in London and a year later in Vienna. (The piece was long thought to have been written in 1823, the year that the Missa solemnis was completed because a report by an English musician who visited Beethoven at that time noted the imminent British publication of the score was misinterpreted to indicate that the Variations was brand new.) The curious opus number (121a) was added in an 1851 publication for clarification, since Beethoven had ascribed the number 121 to both these Variations and the Opferlied.

The Variations opens with an extended G minor introduction of the most pathetic nature to serve as a foil for the jolly tune that follows. The first half-dozen variations are largely figural, but as the work unfolds the sections become richer in texture, invention and substance. The tenth and closing variation includes a whirling, tarantella-like dance, a fugal, minor-key episode and a sparkling coda.