Variations on a Theme of Beethoven

Camille Saint-Saëns

Variations on a Theme of Beethoven

Op. 35

About this work

This is the first and most substantial of a handful of original pieces that Saint-Saëns wrote for two pianos. The eight variations plus a fugue, presto, and coda are based on the Trio from the Menuetto third movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 18 ("Hunt"). It is a fairly strange choice for a theme; its short phrases consist of leaping chords followed by a brief, more melodic figure. On the other hand, it is perfect from a duo standpoint because the chords echo and are easily split between the two performers. Saint-Saëns' variations are comparable to Beethoven's own variation writing in their diversity of style and complete pianism. Saint-Saëns was able to use the two pianos to create almost orchestral sonorities, yet keep the music accessible to moderately skilled players. The variations move from an arpeggiated version of the theme to a filled out lyrical version, a partial inversion, pounding chords, and another arpeggiated version before heading into a funeral march. The march and the following section both feature exotic harmonies that give a more mysterious and Eastern flavor to the music. The fugue, presto, and coda are the meat of the work, requiring a certain amount of élan and a considerable amount of ensemble skill to be done well. Using an earlier master's work as inspiration, Saint-Saëns crafted a classic work for the piano duo repertoire.