BEETHOVEN Ludwig Van, 12 Variations on ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus

In 1796, the young Beethoven set out on a concert tour (the only one of his career) that took him to Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. While in Berlin, he visited the court of the Friedrich Wilhelm II, the King of Prussia. During this visit, Beethoven composed several works for cello and piano, including the two Op. 5 Sonatas, and this set of variations on the famous tune ‘See the conqu’ring hero comes’ from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus. Beethoven once described Handel as ‘the greatest composer that ever lived’ and copied out Messiah in order ‘to unravel its complexities’. His choice of theme is therefore no surprise, and the words of the tune may have seemed an appropriate tribute to King Friedrich Wilhelm. The first performance was probably given by Beethoven and Jean–Louis Duport in Berlin in 1796, at the same time as the premiere of the Op. 5 cello sonatas. The theme is presented on the piano, modestly accompanied by the cello. The twelve variations that follow explore the tune with great wit and ingenuity, including a plaintive version of the theme in G minor (Variation 4), great dramaitc intensity in Variation 8 (the other variation in a minor key), presenting the theme in canon between the two instruments (Variation 10) and, following a rhapsodic Adagio, reworking it as an invigorating dance to end the work in suitably triumphant mood.


Nigel Simeone 2016


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