At the Center of the Musical Universe
Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven© Wikipedia

© Wikipedia

Whether we like it or not, Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the greatest disruptive forces in the history of music. He was a revolutionary man who lived and worked in revolutionary and tumultuous times, and his music exerted tremendous influence on composers and artists alike. Significantly, his music is uniquely capable of revealing and uncovering the uneasy and sometimes troubling aspects of the human condition. Beethoven elevated musical expression to a new level of consciousness, and whether one agrees with, or rejects his compositional approach, after him, nothing could ever be the same. One thing for sure, the revolutionary element, the free, impulsive, mysterious and underlying conception of music as a mode of self-expression fascinated an entire Romantic generation and spawned a whole array of compositions that addressed Beethoven’s musical and philosophical legacy. And that includes Robert Schumann’s incomplete studies on the “Allegretto” theme from Beethoven’s 7th symphony.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No 7, Op. 92 “Allegretto”

Robert Schumann: Etudes in Variation Form on a Theme by Beethoven, WoO 31

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann

Robert Schumann called him a “witty talent who has wasted his wealth of ideas on small forms only.” Schumann was taking about Stephen Heller, a German-Hungarian composer of Jewish descent. Born in the Hungarian town of Pest, Heller produced his first compositions at the age of 6. As a young teenager, he moved to Vienna and met Beethoven and Schubert. Eventually, Heller made his mark in Paris performing his own Schubert transcriptions for Paganini, Chopin and Louis Spohr.

Stephen Heller

Stephen Heller

And he became best friends with Hector Berlioz, who described Heller in his memoirs as a “charming and humorous person, a talented musician who wrote so many admirable works for the piano, full of melancholy and passionate adoration of the true gods of art.” One such admirable work is undoubtedly the set of Variations on a theme by Beethoven published in 1872.

Based on the second movement of Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, Heller wrote, “I have known masterpieces from all genres early on, and Beethoven was the composer who impressed me most. First he humiliated me, but later I got used to look at the sun without being blinded.”

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 23, Op. 57 “Andante”

Stephen Heller: 21 Variations on a theme by Beethoven, Op. 133

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns was one the greatest of all music prodigies. He produced his first composition at age 3, and publically performed a Beethoven violin sonata at age 4. In a legendary concert at the Salle Pleyel, and at the tender age of 10, he offered to play as an encore any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory. Berlioz admiringly wrote, “This young man knows everything, and he is an absolutely shattering master pianist.” As a composer Saint-Saëns remained stubbornly traditional, and by the time of his death in 1921, his compositional style was considered deliberately old fashioned. Scathing critical opinion suggested “Saint-Saëns has written more rubbish than anyone I can think of. It is the worst, most rubbishy kind of rubbish.” Saint-Saëns composed his variations based on the Trio section from the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 31/3 in 1874. The theme is sounded after a quiet introduction, and followed by eight variations that predictably includes a fugue as well.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No 18, Op. 31/3 “Menuetto”
Camille Saint-Saëns: Variations on a Theme of Beethoven, Op. 35


The cellist, organist and pianist Franz Schmidt initially studied with Theodor Leschetizky, and in 1889 managed to enter the Vienna Conservatory where he studied composition and organ with Anton Bruckner, and cello with Ferdinand Hellmesberger. Upon graduation he obtained a post as cellist with the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra playing opera performances and concerts under the direction of conductors like Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, who would habitually have all the cello solos played by Schmidt. However, Schmidt was also a brilliant pianist and by 1914 he had taken up a professorship in piano at the Vienna conservatory. When Leopold Godowsky was asked who the greatest living pianist was, he replied, “The other one is Franz Schmidt.” Schmidt was the favorite composer of left-hand pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned a number of dedicated compositions. Among them are the Concertante Variations on a Theme by Beethoven for piano left hand and orchestra. The themes are taken from the Scherzo movement of Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata” Op. 24, and Wittgenstein performed them throughout Europe and the US.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 5, Op. 24 – III. Scherzo: Allegro ma non troppo

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