Allen Reiser writes a pedagogical column "Sound Thoughts" for
A.P.T.A.'s (Alberta Piano Teachers' Association) quarterly newsletter - "NEWS
AND VIEWS". It is amied at giving teachers hints and pointers about teaching
repertoire. The following is from that column and appeared in the Fall 2007
issue, Vol. XV #1.
SIX EASY VARIATIONS ON A SWISS SONG FOR HARP (OR PIANOFORTE) WoO 64 - LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
The Theme and Variation format was one that Beethoven was strongly drawn to. His first published work, indeed the first composition we know by him, is a set of Piano Variations on a theme by Dressler (WoO 63), which he wrote in 1781, when he was eleven. Twenty more sets of variations for the piano were to follow, culminating in the gargantuan 'Diabelli' Variations, Op. 120, of 1823, universally acknowledged to be the last word on piano variation form in the Classical era. Additionally, the thirty-two piano sonatas contain another five sets of variations within them.
Many of Beethoven's early sets of variations probably started out as public improvisations, an artistic requirement which all performing pianists had to be adept at when Beethoven was in his heyday as a lionized, concertising virtuoso. It was a standard feature of concerts in those days for performers to take requests from the audience and build variations upon suggested tunes, on the spot. These would often be written out later by the performer, and hastily sent off to a publisher to satisfy a clamoring market of amateur musicians, eager to play the 'hits' of the day in professionally 'decorated' versions. As an added benefit, this musical convention also served as a source of quick revenue for the composer.
One such work that more than likely did not first see the light of day in such a gratuitously gladiatorial public performance arena is The Six Easy Variations on a Swiss Song (WoO 64), which Beethoven wrote in 1790 when he was twenty. The complete original title, "Six Easy Variations on a Swiss Song for Harp (or Pianoforte)", gives us the clue as to why. This title indicates that Beethoven in fact wrote these specifically for the harp, with piano included as an tag-along, no doubt to increase its market potential. Thus, these variations would most likely not have been improvised publicly, and bear the distinction of being the only solo work Beethoven wrote for harp. These circumstances no doubt account for the fact that these variations are the least technically demanding of all of Beethoven's piano variations. Today, the "Swiss" variations have been so completely appropriated by pianists, more specifically piano students, that most are unaware of their non-pianistic genesis. For the technically more capable grade 8 student, these variations are doubly, an excellent introduction to variation form, and Beethoven's sound world.
THEME: The theme is a straightforward, open-aired melody, presented in simple two-voiced texture, entirely articulated portamento. Care must be taken that to ensure a true portato touch is present, the student use a separate, detached down-up arm motion for each note. Then, to create a real singing quality for this melody, (it is after all a song, regardless of origin), syncopated pedal should be used; with changes occurring on every melodic note of the right hand. The dynamic shaping is easy enough, conforming to how one would sing it. The most notable feature requiring a slight rhythmic adjustment occurs in bar 8, where the melody, which has risen to the upper register, is interrupted to recapitulate the opening in the lower octave. A slight breathing space would seem in order to musically negotiate the unexpected downward leap of a ninth which this creates.
VARIATION I: The two-voiced texture is maintained here, but the energy level is up a notch due to the introduction of a consistent triplet motion, imparting an ebullient character to the variation. The theme, thus decorated, should still be projected somewhat, with a slight stressing of the beats and a lightening of the 2nd and 3rd notes of the triplets when applicable (bars 1, 4, etc.). The left hand here plays a very important role in the shaping of the melody, especially when it too has triplets. This variation should still have an intimately pliable melodic contour, and not be allowed to prattle on like a vacuous Czerny study. There is scant opportunity for pedal in this variation, a dab on the downbeats of bars 2, 5, and 10 being all.
VARIATION II: With the introduction of the dotted rhythm in the left hand, a distinct 18th century military atmosphere is present here. To make more of this element, care must be taken to ensure that the dotted rhythm maintains its crispness and exact consistency. Likewise, dynamics should be angular in nature to compliment this rhythmic sharpness. If the student has a well-developed pedal technique, pedal can be employed throughout, with a change on every single beat. Using 'shallow pedal' technique will prevent over-resonance and blurring. A slight ritard at the end of this variation will help pave the way for the drastic change of character present in the next variation.
VARIATION III: A shift to the tonic relative minor signals a more serious and expressive view of the theme, which can be played at a slightly slower speed. This is a good chance for a student to learn how to connect a melodic legato voice, while playing a simple accompanying figure in the same hand. The student must first be able to play the RH alone with a good legato, then hands together with the legato still intact before the pedal is added if any success is to be had. Then the student has to learn how to focus his arm weight on the melodic notes and keep it off of the accompanying figure for balance. When added, the pedal needs to be changed on each beat in bars 1, 4, 6, 7 & 8, but can be sustained for 2 beats in bars 2, 5 & 10. Beats 1 - 3 can be contained in one pedal in bars 3, 6 & 11. Musically, a few carefully thought out agogic accents at the apex of phrases can do much to intensify their expressiveness. That Beethoven may have been particularly fond of this variation can be seen in his decision to repeat the second half of the variation, the only instance of a repeat in the entire piece.
VARIATION IV: The return to the major in this variation is as bold as it is exuberant. The theme, now in sharp staccato octaves, plays off of a rambunctious, triplet LH accompaniment. The chief difficulty here lies in a fluent execution of the LH triplets. A strong rotary motion is a must, with the 5th finger being positioned well above the key prior to its playing, so it can receive the energy of the arm¹s rotation. The last 2 1/2 bars in the LH are particularly difficult and require intelligent fingering and much drill to prevent the player from coming to grief. The RH octaves can be played from the forearm and will sound at their enthusiastic best if the hand bounces well off of the keyboard into the air for each octave. For the legato octaves in bars 7 & 8, the use of the pedal, changed on each beat, would seem essential. This variation works well if played somewhat faster than the theme and preceding three variations.
VARIATION V: The most feline of these variations, there is a whimsical, playful character here. The tempo can return to that of the theme to give space. A rigid, beat by beat performance should be avoided. Instead, a flexible feeling of forward flow in these well-arched melodic lines is essential. The final phrase in bars 9 - 11 has a most satisfying contour which can be achieved with a very open and optimistic crescendo in bar 9, followed by a decrescendo and a sense of floating down in bars 10 & 11, with the tempo relaxing slightly. The double notes in these two bars are tricky, require careful legato fingering, and benefit from pedal, changed on each beat.
VARIATION VI: True to standard variation form, this last variation is the most overtly virtuosic, with determined octaves alternating with brilliant scales. The tempo here should be faster, matching that of variation IV. The trills in bars 7 & 8 work well as 5-note turns, starting on the main note (C-D-C-B-C). Bar 9 is as tricky as anything in the piece, and needs careful practice. The repeated notes of the RH often prove to be a stumbling block. The student should be reminded not to lift his hand up on the final notes of beats 2 & 3, but instead play the last note of each beat with a sharp finger staccato, and move the hand sideways, not up. Bars 10 -12 again have a military feel, flutes and fifes vanishing over a hill, and can diminish in tone to show this, with a slight tempo relaxation in bar 12.
Structurally, variation form always needs careful thought as regards tempi and spacing if the variations are to seem unified, yet diverse, and an overall structure is to emerge. The theme, marked 'Andante con moto', works well at a tempo of around 120 to the quarter note. This tempo can be applied to variations 1, 2, and 5. Variation 3 seems to need to relax a bit, to about 100 to the quarter note. Variations 4 and 6 need a faster tempo, about 138 - 144 to the quarter note. Spacing of the variations too, is of importance. A slight pause at the end of the theme separates it from the variations. Variations 1 & 2 can be played without a break, with a slight ritard and a pause at the end of variation 2 to prepare for the slower tempo in variation 3. A relatively long pause is needed between variations 3 and 4, 4 and 5, and 5 and 6, due to the drastic shifts in character between these variations. The most reliable score of these variations is contained in Volume I of Beethoven¹s "Variationen für Klavier", or in Beethoven "Drei Variationenwerke für Klavier" published by Henle.
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