Variation 6: Allegro. Alla marcia
Variation 7: Allegro. Adagio. Allegro
Why did a composer living in Austria write two piano variations on the two English anthems "God save the King" and "Rule Britannia" in 1803?
"God save the King" was not unknown on the continent and highly popular. Many composers chose the melody as a subject for variations and changed it, such as the renowned Bach biographer Johann Nicolaus Forkel in 1791. Thus Beethoven followed a tradition when he used both melodies in his battle music "Wellington's victory", op. 91, in 1813 to represent the English side. Such a motif, however, can only work if there is a clear connection between the country represented and the music. Consequently, the music has to be well known. In addition, Beethoven revered Britain and the British and harboured strong feelings for the island. There, he found benevolent publishers, philharmonic societies to successfully perform his compositions, glory, honour and appraisal. "The English" which for Beethoven represented all British citizens, were a generous nation he had strong affections for. Both variations, WoO 78 and WoO 79 ,were composed in the summer of 1803. It might be coincidental that in June of the same year Scottish publisher George Thomson contacted Beethoven for the first time regarding the composition of sonatas with Scottish themes.
This attractive set of variations was composed around the time Beethoven wrote his third symphony, the Eroica. It is based on the melody used in the British patriotic song, "God Save the King," and in its American counterpart, "My Country 'Tis of Thee." Beethoven would reuse this theme in his 1813 Wellington's Victory, Op. 91, written to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon.
The composer always showed some interest in European and domestic politics, as witnessed by the famous incident in which he crossed the name of Napoleon off the title sheet to the aforementioned Eroica Symphony and rededicated the work to Prince Franz Josef von Lobkowitz. This action had been prompted by Napoleon's declaring himself Emperor of Europe. It is not certain why Beethoven decided to use this British patriotic tune for a set of variations, but the results are quite interesting.
Beethoven presents this somber, stately theme straightforwardly at the outset, then proceeds to gradually divest it of its nobility—not disrespectfully, but to showcase its hidden color. The third and fourth variations are rhythmically appealing, flashy takeoffs, making the source melody by comparison sound overly dignified. The fifth is a dreamy, almost romanticized variation, and the sixth a most energetic one. The last begins in a somber mood, then takes wing to become the most colorful and brilliant of all.
Beethoven had this set of variations published in Vienna in 1804. A typical performance of the work lasts from seven to eight minutes.
(All Music Guide)