Recorded on 11/30/2011, uploaded on 11/30/2011
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
In December 1835, August Wilhelm Schlegel, a German poet well-known for his translations of the works of Shakespeare, called for the erection of a monument in honor of Ludwig van Beethoven in the composer’s hometown of Bonn. Calls immediately went out for funding. Yet, despite expressed enthusiasm for the project, little of the needed money was actually raised. Several composers, however, threw their support behind the project, including Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann who both greatly admired Beethoven’s music, though sat on opposite sides of the intellectual divide that would culminate in the feud between Wagner and Brahms. Felix Mendelssohn also contributed to the project with his Variations sérieuses, op. 54, composed in 1841. The unveiling of the Beethoven monument was originally scheduled for August 6, 1843, but was delayed for two years. The ceremony took place on August 12, 1845, the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth, preceded by a performance of the composer’s Mass in C major.
Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses was his only set of variations for the piano to be published in his lifetime, though he composed a total of three, and is regarded as his finest contribution to the form. A remarkable aspect of the work is its total absence of the elfin quality so typical of Mendelssohn’s music, replaced by a profound seriousness, making it a fitting tribute to the occasion for which it was written. Perhaps as a homage to Beethoven himself, Mendelssohn chose the key of D minor, the key that so effectively served as the tonal center of the weighty discourse of the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. The theme of the variations, of Mendelssohn’s own construction, however, is somewhat Bachian in its choral-like stature and intricate four-part harmony. Yet, this nevertheless seems fitting as Beethoven held the music of J. S. Bach in high regard long before Mendelssohn had revived the Leipzig cantor’s music. Indeed, it was a renewed study in the works of Bach and Handel that we have partially to thank for the ethereal music of Beethoven’s later period. The Bachian tune, sixteen measures in all, is subjected to seventeen cunning variations, ranging from contrapuntal treatments still suggestive of Bach to powerful transformations that summon the image and spirit Beethoven himself. Joseph DuBose
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