Seven Things To Know About The Seven Variations

One of the works in our Selby and Friends concert is Beethoven's  - Variations (7) on Mozart’s "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" from The Magic Flute, for 'cello and piano, WoO 46.

Bei Männern is a lovely duet sung  in Mozart's opera by Princess Pamina and the birdcatcher Papageno. They praise of the power of love between husband and wife, and the universal joy of love;  "Love today and love tomorrow keep nature's circle turning true." 

Beethoven composed his seven variations in 1801, giving the role of Pamina to the piano and the role of Papageno to the 'cello. The seven variations are particularly interesting for the way in which they reflect aspects - seven in fact - of Beethoven's own life and works.

 

                  Beethoven 1803

                                                           Portrait of Beethoven by Christian Horneman, 1803

 

1. The Magic Flute was Beethoven's favourite opera.  Jan Swafford in "Beethoven, Anguish and Triumph" suggests that Beethoven's  regard for the Magic Flute was "...because of its humanistic ideals as much as its music."  The opera presents an uplifting view of humanity and the victory of love over adversity.

2. Beethoven contributed to bringing Mozart to a wider public. At the time of Mozart's death, music connoisseurs held him in high regard, but Mozart was not particularly popular with the wider public who found his music difficult. Freidrich Blume in "The Mozart Companion" explains that an understanding and appreciation of Mozart's style would develop gradually and  "... it was Mozart's melody that opened the way." He goes on to explain that Beethoven's early variations on Mozart melodies - including Bei Männern - made those melodies accessible and began drawing a wider audience to Mozart.

3.   Bei Männern shows the artistry with which Beethoven could represent the human voice. Although he is better known for his symphonies, concertos, sonatas and chamber music, Beethoven wrote very many beautiful art songs, leider, choral works and folksong arrangements. He understood the human voice and how it could be used with intelligence and emotion, something that perhaps came from his early family life. Beethoven's beloved grandfather had been a court tenor. His father was also a tenor and singing teacher.

4. Beethoven's partnership of piano and 'cello was masterful.   For much of the eighteenth century the dynamics of keyboard instruments were uneven. Composers tended to tie the 'cello to the keyboard part, using the 'cello to reinforce the keyboard in its lower registers. Piano design in the late eighteenth century incorporated stronger registers and dynamic range. The piano and 'cello voices could now be free and independent. Beethoven was one of the first composers to exploit this. His Bei Männern variations and earlier works led the way in combining piano and 'cello as equal (or near to equal) voices. Beethoven would go on use this partnership with great success in later sonatas. 

5. Beethoven could often bring a sense of fun to his music.  We tend to focus on Beethoven as a heroic, serious and deeply moving composer. He was this and so much more. As with many of his chamber works the Bei Männern variations contain passages that are lively and playful.  Beethoven was a master of the scherzo or "light-hearted" movement - the musical expression of joyful exuberance.

6. Beethoven touches our deepest emotions. The Bei Männern variations suggest the complexity of love  - sometimes playful and exhilarating, sometimes tender and intimate, sometimes sorrowful and yearning. The variations, like much of Beethoven's music arouse in the listener an emotional understanding that goes beyond words. To quote Jan Swafford again: "... Beethoven was a superb psychologist in tone. Part of the fundamental conception of each piece is an implicit encompassing dramatic/expressive/psychological narrative. "

7.  Like Papageno in the Bei Männern duet, Beethoven longed for a wife. Sadly, Beethoven did not marry. He formed lasting friendships with several women, but their high social status put marriage to him out of the question. His greatest love is known to us only as  "The Immortal Beloved". After his death, a long and tender letter addressed to "The Immortal Beloved" was found, unsent, in his estate. Many scholars have researched her identity. The most likely candidate is now considered to be Antonie Bretano. Beethoven had been a friend of her family for many years and had dedicated the Diabelli Variations to her.