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Kakadu Variations, Op. 121a

January 27, 2019: Pinchas Zukerman Trio

On July 19, 1816, Beethoven wrote to his Leipzig publisher Gottfried Christoph Härtel offering him his “Variations with an introduction and coda for Piano, violin, and violoncello upon a well-known theme by Müller,” adding, “They are from my earlier compositions but they do not belong to the reprehensible ones.” Beethoven had originally penned the Variations c. 1801–03, taking as his theme the well-known tune “Ich bin der Schneider Wetz und Wetz” (I am the tailor whet and whet) from Wenzel Müller’s 1794 singspiel (light opera with spoken dialogue) Die Schwestern von Prag (The sisters from Prague). The work charmed the Viennese in 130 performances at the Theater in der Leopoldstadt during Beethoven’s lifetime.

An 1814 revival—the opera’s 122nd performance—may have prompted Beethoven to revisit the Variations and send them to his publisher in 1816, but he appears to have gone far beyond a mere dusting off. He likely made revisions in two stages, as scholar Lewis Lockwood has pointed out, both around 1816, and, since Härtel did not publish the work then, again around 1824 when Steiner published it as Opus 121a—the last of the master’s piano trios. In particular, Beethoven made substantial changes to his introduction and finale, the latter curiously labeled “rondo” in the 1824 publication but clearly not in that form.

The popular tune that Beethoven used as his theme—now the opera’s best-known melody thanks to the Variations—underwent a name change by the time of the 1824 publication, because “Wetz und Wetz” (whet and whet, or grind and grind) had sexual connotations in Viennese dialect. The choice of the innocuous “Kakadu,” a comic bird, may have been related in some way to Mozart’s birdcatcher Papageno from The Magic Flute. In Müller’s singspiel, “Ich bin der Schneider Wetz und Wetz” is the entrance song of the tailor Krispin, who will disguise himself as the “sister from Prague” to gain the required approval for his master Herr von Gerstenfeld to marry Herr von Brummer’s daughter Wilhelmine against a field of undesirable suitors.

Beethoven’s introduction, presumably expanded when he revisited the work, contrasts markedly from the more traditional ensuing variations. Fantasia-like, it anticipates the “Kakadu” tune in tantalizing bits as if, as Lockwood suggests, Müller’s simple, jocular theme is being “composed before our very ears.” Beethoven also seems to have tinkered with the last variation, elaborating it in a fugal manner and imbuing the coda with extra weight and the experience of his mature years.

That Beethoven returned in Variations 1–9 to the more conventional if still engaging variations of his original set seems to say that he was happy with them as long as his introduction and conclusion now showed how far he had come in his maturity. After the drama of the introduction, the utterly simple presentation of Müller’s Papageno-like theme makes for a delightful comedic jolt. Variation 1 features the piano alone, Variation 2 highlights the violin in running triplets and birdlike ornaments over dainty piano, and Variation 3 presents the cello in lyrical lines to gentle piano accompaniment.

Variations 4, 5, and 6 combine the three instruments—No. 4 sending the piano in cascading descents and ascents, No. 5 introducing contrapuntal imitation, and No. 6 requiring virtuosic delicate piano octave figurations with pointed “chirps” from the strings. Variation 7 gives the violin and cello a simple contrapuntal duet, Variation 8 shows Beethoven’s fleet-footed rhythmic play in alternation between strings and piano, and Variation 9 presents the requisite minor-mode Adagio for somberly expressive contrast. Variation 10 scampers at lightning speed until the coda begins in a simple, slightly martial Allegretto that Beethoven builds in fugal style to a grand, spirited conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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