Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat Op.35 ‘Eroica Variations’

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
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Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)

Performance date: 24/06/2023

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1802

Duration: 00:23:58

Recording Engineer: Gar Duffy, RTÉ

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Artists: Cédric Tiberghien - [piano]

Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat Op.35 ‘Eroica Variations’ [1802]

The Op.35 Variations are the longest and most substantial variations that Beethoven composed until he returned to the form in his later years. Immediately after composing these Op.35 variations, Beethoven started working on the Eroica Symphony whose Finale consists of six variations on exactly the same theme; inevitably became known as the Eroica Variations.

The delightfully simple opening using only the theme’s bass line continues for three variations. Only then does the theme make a graceful entry with a full harmonic accompaniment. There are three repeated notes which appear both at the end of the first part of the tune and, more prominently, at the beginning of the second part. These three notes are part of the bass line that opens the work and are given due emphasis by Beethoven. 

The journey begins, as most journeys do, in a mood of high spirits. The first few variations are brilliant and witty.  By variation five which is played softly throughout, a more thoughtful mood has appeared. By variation eight with the left hand crossing over the right, we are in a new world of calm beauty. This does not last long and in variation thirteen an accidental in the treble sounds almost like a bird chirping. By variation fourteen which is in the minor key the whole structure of the work has begun to change. This austere variation has no repeats and leads into the Largo fifteenth variation where Beethoven’s improvisatory imagination takes over.  This is by far the longest variation and the music is now open to almost any possibility. Finally the return of the theme signals the transition to the fugal finale. 

After a lively journey the short fugue, derived from the bass line, concludes with three loud chords. The tempo slows as if to repeat the theme for one more time but in fact the music takes off for another variation. A series of magical trills gives the music an almost transcendental quality. The theme does appear once more in a light hearted vein and with successive compressions of its phrases, it brings this extraordinary work to a boisterous conclusion.

David Winter