About this work
Beethoven's Piano Trio, Op. 121a, is a set of variations on Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu, from Die Schwestern von Prag, a singspiel by Wenzel Müller (1767-1835) that premièred in Vienna in 1794. The variations were probably composed in 1803, and may have been offered for publication at that time. Evidently, they were offered to Breitkopf & Härtel in 1816 and rejected, nonetheless eventually printed in May 1824 by both Steiner in Vienna and Chappell in London, incorporating Beethoven's revisions of 1816-1817. Steiner's print carries simply "Op. 121." A year later Schott published the Opferlied with the same opus number, requiring later publishers to append an "a" to the Trio and "b" to the Opferlied. It seems difficult to believe that Beethoven's Kakadu variations were composed in the same year as the "Waldstein" Sonata, Op. 53. The variations show none of the harmonic exploration or motivic manipulation characteristic of the sonata, and are quite conventional. This is most certainly because he wrote the piece hoping it would sell widely, which is why he chose a popular theme. He did, however, give the work an opus number.
The Adagio introduction begins in G minor with a unison descending figure. A new motive appears when the repeated chords begin in the piano, after which Beethoven touches on B flat major, but does not commit, preferring to head back to G minor. The opening and secondary motives mingle as the dynamic level grows, stopping on the dominant of G minor/major. Müller's theme perfectly fits traditional Classical-era proportions. In two parts, the first tune consists of two four-measure segments that each carry an arching melody, while the second part contains two eight-measure sections. Variation No. 1 is entirely the property of the piano. Beethoven closely follows the original patterns of repetition and harmony, except for the addition of a dominant chord at the very end of the fourth measure, a subtle change that appears in every variation but the third, ninth, and tenth. Marked leggiermente (light, nimble), the second variation proceeds without cello, the rapid violin part moving in triplets over the duple rhythm of the piano part. The cello takes center stage in the third variation, maintaining the basic shape of the theme but none of its details, while triplets return in the piano part of variation No. 4, in which the theme is easily recognizable. In contrast to the previous variation, the violin and cello dominate the fifth variation, the piano occasionally decorating and doubling. The melodic material here actually sounds more like that of the introduction than the theme. Flashy octaves in the piano obscure the theme in variation No. 6, while the more delicate seventh variation gives the pianist a rest. Syncopated lines characterize the eighth variation, as segments of the theme are traded between the strings and piano. Finally, Beethoven changes key, somewhat, setting the ninth variation in G minor, the key of the introduction, and emphasizing the relationship between the two sections by marking the variation "Adagio." The slow tempo allows this to be the most decorated variation of the set. The major mode returns in variation No. 10, in 6/8 meter. The coda consists of two more variations, the first of which revisits G minor; the second returns to both G major and 2/4 meter.
Curated by Femke Steketee, Saxophonist