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.
Published in 1799 by Joseph Eder in Vienna, the WoO. 76 set of variations was dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, whose husband, Count Johann von Browne (1767-1827), was one of Beethoven's chief early patrons. The Countess also received the dedications of the Piano Sonatas, Op. 10, and the Variations, WoO. 71. The Brownes once gave Beethoven a gift of a riding horse. Beethoven soon forgot about the animal, and his servant began to hire it out for his own benefit. When Beethoven received a bill for the horse's food, he was reminded of the animal and eventually got rid of it.
An occasional piece, Beethoven's WoO. 76 Variations are based on a theme from Franz Xaver Sussmayer's opera, Soliman II, oder Die drei Sultaninnen, which premiered at the Karntnertor Theater in Vienna on October 1, 1799. Best known today for his completion of Mozart's Requiem, Sussmayer (1766-1803) enjoyed a successful career as both a composer of operas and Kapellmeister of the National Theater in Vienna. The terzetto, "Tandeln und scherzen," (Flirt and Joke) from Soliman II, achieved wide popularity, on which Beethoven hoped to capitalized by quickly composing a set of variations. Two other sets of variations that appeared in 1799 were inspired by operas: the publication of the Variations for piano in B flat major on "La stessa, la stessissima" from Salieri's Falstaff, WoO. 73, appeared in February and the Variations for piano in F major on "Kind willst du," from Winter's Das Unterbrochene Opferfest, WoO. 75, were announced in December.
Full of pregnant pauses, Sussmayer's theme, in F major and 3/8 meter, opens with an eight-measure phrase that closes on the dominant, C major. Six more measures fail to lead back to the tonic, accomplished instead by what sounds like a four-measure addition. Two seemingly independent measures again stop on the dominant, only to have the same four-measure segment appear again to finish the theme on F major.
Beethoven's first variation immediately throws the character of the theme out the window, emphasizing its falling grace notes. Arpeggios, now in a triplet rhythm, continue in the second variation while in the third, the melodic movement changes to the left hand. Speed and range increase in the fourth variation, in which only the harmonic aspect of the theme remains. As if to compensate for going too far astray, Beethoven provides a nearly literal rendition of the theme in the left hand of variation No. 5, although the key is changed to D minor. The opening three notes of the theme form the basis of the sixth variation, on B flat major except for the very end, which prepares for the return of F major in the highly ornamental variation No. 7, marked Adagio. Abandoning the triple meter, Beethoven increases the tempo for the canonic final variation in which a predominantly three-voice texture explores several harmonies until the triple meter returns in the Adagio coda.
(All Music Guide)