Ludwig van Beethoven
Kakadu Variations in G major Op. 121a
Beethoven’s Kakadu Variations comprise an introduction and 10 variations on a popular theme from the Viennese stage. It has a compositional history that extends over more than two decades, with a first version of the work likely dating from around 1803. By 1816 Beethoven had had another look at it and enlarged the slow introduction considerably. Then finally, just before its publication in 1824, he added a spiffy fugal section to balance out the architecture by giving more weight to the final variation. Stylistically, then, this work is something of a three-layered musical cake, with contributions from his early, middle(ish) and late style periods.
The slow introduction is a dramatic set-up for the entrance of the variation theme, but at almost a third of the duration of the entire work, it certainly takes its time getting there. Filled with dynamic surprises, pregnant pauses, and echo effects, it projects a mood of mystery and expectation—one that is totally undercut, mind you, when the ditsy little main theme makes its anticlimactic arrival.
Ich bin der Schneider Wetz und Wetz (I am the tailor, whet and whet) was the hit tune from The Sisters from Prague, a popular stage work that debuted in Vienna in 1794. Its simplistic harmony and catchy melody—remarkably similar to that of Papageno’s aria Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Mozart’s Magic Flute—made it instantly popular. Indeed, this aviary association may well account for its popular title Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu (meaning cockatoo). Or perhaps it was just that in Viennese dialect Wetz und Wetz (imitating the repetitive actions of blade sharpening) had sexual connotations that made the phrase a bit too racy to perform in front of children.
The variations that follow this chipper melody are remarkable for the number of trio members going AWOL. Variation 1 is for piano alone. Variation 2 is performed by violin with piano accompaniment while the cellist files his nails, and Variation 3 is scored for cello and piano, allowing the violinist time to check her cell phone for e-mails. Variation 7 has no piano part at all: it is merely a string duo between violin and cello. Other variations, however, make up for this absenteeism with an abundance of lively three-part contrapuntal discussion. Variation 9 combines the customary minore variation with the traditional Adagio, harkening back in tone to the work’s slow introduction, but with a more sustained sense of Neapolitan-style pathos and lament.
All the more jolting, therefore, is the galumphing ‘Farmer John’ jollity that opens the last variation, a jollity that soon transforms, with little notice, into a full-on fugal exposition in the minor mode. Simplicity reigns in the end, however, as the strings and piano play cat-and-mouse with each other, trading scraps of the theme back and forth until it comes time to wrap things up with a rousing swirl of figuration in all instruments.
During the long gestation of this work, Beethoven remained true to the funhouse mood of the melody he was treating, but he could have had no idea of the extra chuckles he was unwittingly preparing for future listeners. An irregular distribution of smirks throughout the hall will identify audience members of a certain age who recognize at the end of Variation 4 an anticipatory reference to Monty Python’s I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No. 2
The first performance of Beethoven’s Trio in E-flat major Op. 70 No. 2 took place in Vienna at the home of Countess Marie Erdödy in December of 1808. The intimate setting of the work’s premiere and its dedication to the Countess herself may account for the gentle tone that characterizes its four movements. Notable in its formal layout is the lack of a deeply emotional slow movement, the inner core of the work being comprised instead of two allegrettos.
With its square symmetrical phrasing and decorative piano textures, the compositional style of this trio is distinctly ‘retro’, looking back to the period of Mozart and Haydn, with the formal procedures of Haydn, in particular, being an important point of reference.
The work opens with a slow introduction—a Haydn trademark—that demurely introduces each of the three instruments in turn. The triplet pulse of the following Allegro gives the two principal themes of the movement a mildly dancelike character, the first full of skips and hops but coyly inflected with little sigh motives, the second more flowing but with a waltz-like lilt that only gets more pronounced in the development section. A Haydnesque surprise awaits in the recapitulation when the piano’s sparkling forays into the keyboard’s highest register are interrupted by a sudden reprise of the slow introduction, setting the tone for the movement’s quiet close.
The Allegretto second movement is a set of double variations, a formal pattern much used by Haydn, in which variations of two contrasting themes alternate throughout the movement. Beethoven’s two themes are in contrasting tone colours, the first being in a primly demure C major, the second in a peasant-stomping C minor. Both, however, are united in their desire to hop away quickly from the downbeat, either with the ‘Scotch snap’ figure that opens the movement or with any number of variations of it that occur throughout.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the third movement Allegretto ma non troppo was by Schubert, not Beethoven. Its concentration on simple, singable melody, devoid of contrapuntal distraction, is what one would expect from a Schubert impromptu. But here, once again, Beethoven is looking back, not forward, with a melody taken from the Largo of Haydn’s Symphony No. 88. A middle section featuring stark antiphonal responses between piano and strings prevents this honeyed melody from becoming cloying in the ear.
Beethoven ends his trio with an extroverted and chattery finale in sonata form, brimming with busy-bee scale motifs and a constant patter of bustling chuffa-chuffa accompaniment patterns. There is an almost Brahmsian weight to this movement that derives from the extraordinarily wide range of tone coming from the piano, which both plumps up the ensemble’s sonority with rich cushions of sound from the deepest reaches of the keyboard and sugar-coats it with ear-tickling sparkle in the highest register.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Trio in B-flat major Op. 97 “Archduke”
Beethoven’s last piano trio, completed in 1811, is a monumental work dedicated to his longtime friend, patron, and only composition student, the Archduke Rudolph (1788-1831), youngest son of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Laid out in the conventional pattern of sonata-form first movement, scherzo and trio, lyrical slow movement and rondo finale, its extraordinary length allowed Beethoven to think musically at a symphonic scale in the traditionally more compact genre of chamber music. It also permitted him the scope to engage in a sumptuous play of instrumental sonorities, writing the violin part unusually low, the cello line uncharacteristically high, and allowing the piano unfettered access to the sparkling upper reaches of the keyboard.
The work opens with a serene and relaxed piano melody based structurally around the B-flat major chord, a melody both noble and tender. This melody’s further elaboration by all three instruments reveals distinctively Beethovenian touches of dissonance in the harmony that add a countercurrent of ‘grittiness’ to the placid surface emotion being evoked. In contrast to the triadic first theme, the second theme is a prancing little pattern of repeated notes that soon mellows into a liquid flow of scale figures traded between instruments and the exposition ends with a flourish of fanfares and cadencing trills.
The development section, where drama and conflict is expected, is remarkably calm and lyrical, meditating at length over the opening motive of the movement before becoming obsessed with the second theme’s scale figures in an ear-catching texture of piano trills and pizzicato strings. The recapitulation arrives unobtrusively out of a soft blur of pianissimo trills. Indeed, understatement appears to motivate the entire movement and it is only at the end of the coda that all instruments join forces to glorify the opening theme with a triumphant burst of jubilation.
By contrast, Beethoven is not about to let the following scherzo pass by unnoticed and digs deep into his bag of mischief in structuring this more-than-quirky movement. Its scherzo theme is a rhythmicized scale rising up over the space of an octave, answered by a similar scale descending the same distance. What could be simpler? But then, like a cat that has caught a mouse and lets it go a short distance before catching it again, Beethoven toys with this scale, letting it venture out in small steps but always pulling it back home.
His dark humour is let off the leash, however, in the trio section, which begins with a slow fugato creeping up the chromatic scale like a swamp creature crawling out of a lagoon to scare the local population. Good thing the swamp creature brought his dancing shoes, though, for the rollicking Austrian ländler tune that soon breaks out on shore. It’s quite a musical menagerie, this scherzo, but by means of convincing transitions and juxtapositions Beethoven manages to make all three musical motives seem like neighbours celebrating together in the same village square.
Ingenious as the scherzo is, the real gem of this trio is the Andante cantabile variations movement that follows. Its elegiac hymn-like theme is humbly offered up by the piano, richly harmonized in the low register before being received into the warm embrace of the strings. The magic begins right away in the first variation with an evocation of star-gazing wonder on a clear summer’s night as the piano paints twinkling points of light over a wide range of the keyboard. Each variation that follows becomes more animated until finally the theme is recalled in its original setting and lovingly remembered in a rhapsodic duo between violin and cello over gently pulsing triplets in the piano.
The rondo finale, that immediately follows without a break, sends us home with a spring in our step. This movement’s upbeat refrain theme, with its bouncy and buoyant stride bass accompaniment, has a cane-twirling, walk-in-the-park breeziness about it that almost suggests French café culture, but the muscular punchy episodes that sandwich its recurring appearances remind us that we are here firmly on German soil. In the end, the movement’s lighthearted devil-may-care mood turns to sheer giddiness with a tarantella-like race to the finish line.
Donald G. Gíslason 2020