Saturday, 14 January 2012

Mr. Beethoven, your majesty!

It seems nobody's quite sure why he wrote them but my fellow Brits will be pleased to know that Beethoven wrote a set of variations on our national anthem, his 7 Variations in C on 'God Save the King', WoO78. They aren't exactly his deepest work but they have quite a few things to recommend them.

(If this post goes awry it's because it's not easy to tap out a post on a laptop when you're standing for the national anthem!)

The theme is presented straightforwardly. Then Variation I adds some charming touches to the theme, such as the little turn on its first note and the unexpected frisson of an out-of-key F sharp in the second bar followed by the even more unexpected C sharp in the third bar. Who would have anticipated such adventurous harmonies so early in the piece? There's also the syncopations beginning at the end of the third bar and  the chromatic notes in the second half leading up to the surprise rest in the tune which results in more syncopations. That's the first of my favourites. Variation II turns the tune into an agile two-part invention and hits the spot with those repeated Gs that run along the middle of the texture at the start of the second half. Variation III is jaunty and almost jazzy in its use of syncopation and Variation IV continues the rhythmic games in a way that looks forward (as I always do!) to Schumann. Ah, now we arrive at Variation V and the obligatory minor key variation. Who would have thought that this famous tune would have yielded such tenderness? The grace of the melody and the loveliness of Beethoven's harmonies are the keys to this variation's special appeal. As you may have guessed, that's the second of my favourites. A strutting march follows in Variation VI, breaking the spell of Variation V. The final variation then whirls into action, the theme bouncing along on a perpetual motion of semiquavers. After a short adagio reminder of the theme in all its stately grandeur, Beethoven's coda erupts in a new kind of whirling figuration, on which the theme dances, sings a couple of phrases more lyrically before returning to the whirling figuration before erupting in the sort of brilliance expected at the very end of works like these. 

Now, it's fair to say that Beethoven doesn't present the anthem throughout with the majesty we might expect, but then this is a set of variations presumably written for the delight of audiences rather than to hail the arrival of British monarchs!

I love variations.

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