By the end of his life, Beethoven had composed nearly seventy sets of variations. Most of the early ones were based on themes by other composers and were not given opus numbers, which Beethoven reserved for what he felt to be his more substantial, important works. Beethoven's Variations for piano in B flat major on Salieri's "La stessa, la stessissima" were published in 1799 by Artaria in Vienna, and dedicated to Countess Babette von Keglevics.
Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) composed his Falstaff in 1798; it premiered in the Karntnertor Theater in Vienna on January 3, 1799. A number of selections from the opera, including the duet, "La stessa, la stessissima," became popular in Vienna; Beethoven's Variations on the tune were published in February of the same year. Two other sets of variations composed in 1799 were inspired by operas: the publications of both the Variations for piano in F major on "Kind willst du," from Winter's Das Unterbrochene Opferfest, WoO. 75, and the Variations for piano in F major on "Tandeln und Scherzen," from Sussmayer's Soliman II, WoO. 76, were announced in December.
Salieri served as Kapellmeister at court in Vienna from 1788 to 1824, when his mental state began to deteriorate. Beethoven studied Italian text setting and operatic style with the older master somewhat sporadically from 1798-1801, dedicating the Violin Sonatas, Op. 12 to him in 1799.
Initial reception of the Variations, WoO. 73, was poor. In June 1799 a critic for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung described the piece as "stiff and strained; and what awkward passages are in them, where harsh tirades in continuous semitones create an ugly relationship and the reverse! ... Herr van Beethoven ... does not know how to write variations."
The style of the technically demanding Variations, WoO. 73, is grounded in the ornamental, high-Classical aesthetic of variation technique. Beethoven does exploit rhythmic and harmonic aspects of the theme, but the fundamental variation procedures consist of detailed decoration of the melody.
Salieri's melody consists of two eight-measure segments, the first of which leaps about and features a turning figure of four sixteenth notes on the second beat of nearly every measure. The second half is much more linear than the first and returns from the dominant to the tonic.
Beethoven immediately fills in the leaps of the first half of the theme in the first variation, opening with the rising "continuous semitones" that must have elicited the above complaint. Varying his own variation, Beethoven again employs rising half-steps, one per beat in the right hand, in the second variation, replicating the stepwise motion of the second half of the theme. In the fourth and fifth variations block chords, then arpeggios in a triplet rhythm, trace the shape of the theme while maintaining the original pattern of repetition. The ever-present minor variation appears in No. 5, in which we hear the return of Salieri's leaps. In the sixth variation Beethoven reduces the theme to a bare-bones cantus firmus, accompanied by descending eighth-notes in the left hand. The rapid, fortissimo scales and arpeggios of the seventh variation contrast with the quiet, aria-like atmosphere of the eighth, while the static nature of the ninth points up the dearth of melodic and harmonic motion in the original. In the tenth and final variation, a change to triple meter and the tempo indication, Allegretto (alla Austriaca) suggest an Austrian Landler. A sudden return to the opening tempo original theme create the sense of an organic whole.
(All Music Guide)