The date of composition of this work is not known, although it is believed to have come prior to 1793. Some musicologists have speculated that it was composed around 1790, the time of Beethoven's student years. It was actually written for harp or piano and is generally not viewed as a significant effort, even considering the composer's youth and inexperience.
The theme is rather colorless in its simple, two-voice makeup and brevity (eight measures). It has the nondescript kind of character that one hears in a piece written for beginning music students. The variations themselves are hardly inventive and display little of the genius to come. Variations four and five do show a modicum of charm, but the primary significance of this piece may be that it was the first the composer wrote for harp. In his ballet The Creatures of Prometheus (1800-01), Beethoven wrote a harp solo for the fifth movement, this time supplying much better music. These were the only two instances he composed for harp.
A typical performance of the Swiss Song Variations lasts just under four minutes.
(Robert Cummings, Rovi)
The autograph score for the Variations on a Swiss Air WoO 64 is unusually neat. It was so unusually well written that the Berlin manuscript dealer Liepmannssohn, through whose hands many of the most famous manuscripts passed at the beginning of the twentieth century, still thought in 1930 that it was a copy made by a professional copyist. It is now certain that it was done by Beethoven. However, assigning a date to it is rather problematic. The song used as the theme for the Variations was published in 1781 - too early, to offer a direct clue. The paper on which the autograph score was made is unique amongst the paper used by the composer. Beethoven used similar paper from the same paper mill in his late Bonn years, that is between 1790 and 1792. This is confirmed by an analysis of the handwriting. As is the case with with most people, Beethoven's earlier handwriting was not the same as that of his "mature" years. The composer's handwriting and its development have been closely examined, not least because of its notorious illegibility. Characteristics of the young Beethoven's handwriting which have been researched include the form and sweep of the clefs, accolades, bar lines and metre, which changed at different times. Using these findings the composition date of the autograph score can be narrowed down to between 1790 and 1792.
The autograph was written very carefully, so that Beethoven could use it later as model for the engraving. In 1798 the variations were published by the newly founded publisher Simrock at Bonn.