Beethoven was an ardent admirer of Goethe and set his texts to music on several occasions (his Three Songs, Op. 83 offer an example in the song mainstream). In this case, he was inspired by the opening stanza of Goethe's poem Ich denke dein (I think of you) to compose the theme here; in fact, the melody itself was conceived as the theme for the song of the same name.
This melody is a big, sentimental outpouring, full of passion and color. Some, however, may hear it as bordering on schmaltz. In a sense, it is the perfect kind of theme that is ripe for variation, owing to its many contours and rich atmosphere. Yet, lengthy melodies, as this one surely is, tend to resist the generation of new melodic material. At least Beethoven in his many variation sets preferred shorter and generally blander themes to work with. But whether the theme itself proved too unwieldy for the composer or not, this short piece lacks distinction. Its general failure may not have been due to the melody, though: for some reason, Beethoven was rarely at home in the four-hands realm. Perhaps because he was a formidable pianist himself, he tended to favor music with a single piano part.
So the variations here rarely seem to spring to life. The grim fifth comes across with power, and the lively last one has charm and wit. But the others border on the bland. It is amazing that such a multifaceted theme could yield but six mediocre variations and add up to a duration for the whole piece of about six minutes. Beethoven dedicated the work to the von Brunsvik sisters, (Maria) Therese and Josephine, and it was first published in Vienna in 1805.
(All Music Guide)