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: 02/07/2016

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1770-1827

Duration: 00:22:03

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Artists: Tamar Beraia - [piano]

Beethoven wanted these variations to be called the
Prometheus variations since he had already used their famous theme in his
Creatures of Prometheus ballet music. He even offered to pay the publishers to
include the reference to Prometheus on the title page. However immediately
after composing these Op.35 variations, Beethoven started working on the Eroica Symphony. The finale of this symphony consists of six variations on
exactly the same theme. Once the Eroica Symphony
had established its reputation, these piano variations became widely known as
the Eroica Variations.

The main point of similarity between the two sets
of variations is that in both Beethoven begins radically to change the nature
of the variation form. His earlier variations start with a theme, which is
varied a number of times with the theme returning at the end. Here Beethoven
abandons this circular structure. These variations are now journeys through
many and varied musical landscapes. We never return to the beginning. By the
end of the variations we are in an entirely new place. Certainly the theme is
still present, but more as a reassuring friend as the music becomes wilder and
more astonishing.

The Op.35 Variations are the longest and most
substantial variations that Beethoven composed until he returned to the form in
his later years.  Written in the summer
of 1802, they coincide with the great turmoil Beethoven experienced as he
realised his deafness would only get worse. This provoked his astonishing
determination to continue composing despite his deafness. His response was to
compose, in addition to these Variations, a number of extraordinary orchestral
works including the Second and Third Symphonies.

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.
Thereafter they make frequent appearances throughout the work.

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.