The first of the two Rondos, Op. 51, was published in 1797 by Artaria in Vienna and the second in 1802, also by Artaria in Vienna, but with a dedication to Countess Henriette Lichnowsky, sister of Prince Karl Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven's most important patrons. The first of the set is cast in C major, the second in G major.
Sketches for the Rondo in G major were made in 1798. It seems Beethoven gave the piece to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, a student of Beethoven and the dedicatee of the "Moonlight" Sonata, Op. 27, No. 2, written in 1801. Her romance with Beethoven fizzled (she probably never took it seriously) and she became engaged to Count Wenzel Gallenberg, a young composer of ballet music with whom Guicciardi had been involved at least as long as she had known Beethoven. She married Gallenberg in 1803. Sometime in 1802, Beethoven asked Guicciardi to return the Rondo so he could dedicate it to Countess Lichnowsky.
Variation and development are the salient features of the Rondo in C major. The main theme, section A, is a ternary structure, the central part of which is more a series of figures and scales than a theme. The large-scale form of the Rondo is ABACA; the B section is on the dominant and falls into two parts, the second of which modulates to the tonic for the return of A. From this point on, Beethoven begins to experiment. The first return of A is incomplete, lacking its central section. The ensuing C section begins in C minor and has a rounded structure with a coda that includes the A theme on A flat major, much as would appear in a sonata-form development section. This is varied and mixed with fragments from earlier parts of section C before a true return of A, in C major. However, this last appearance of A incorporates material from C, but resolved to the tonic. A lengthy coda revisits the "flat" keys of section C and closes with a final quote of the opening theme.
Marked Andante cantabile e grazioso and in 2/4 meter, the Rondo in G major is a combination of Mozartean grace and ornamentation and Beethoven's sense of concentration. Cast in ternary rondo form, or ABACABA, this piece is also infused with characteristics of sonata form. For instance, the B section is on the dominant, but moves back to the tonic for the return of A. More telling is the central section, which is set in E major, far removed from the tonic on the "sharp side," creating precisely the kind of tension typical of sonata-form movements. Contrast is increased by the 6/8 meter of section C. As in sonata-form movements, when B returns, it is in the tonic, not the dominant. The A section is itself ternary in construction. The first part is characterized by thirty-second-note flourishes that descend to connect the tones of the melody, while similar flourishes ascend in the central segment as the tune moves from right hand to left. The return of the first part of the theme is extended through repetition of the falling flourishes; Beethoven uses this extension each time it appears to modulate to the ensuing key.
(John Palmer, Rovi)
No.1 in C
Beethoven wrote a number of rondos, mostly for piano solo, but one for piano and orchestra, another for violin and piano, and one for wind octet. Curiously, all of his rondos are early works, none coming after 1800. This C major effort is by far the more popular of the two in the Op. 51 set and the most widely performed of all his rondos, with the exception of the 1795 Rondo a Capriccio, better known as "Rage Over a Lost Penny." That work's charm lies in its humor, while this C major effort scores with its grace and Mozartian lightness. It opens with a chipper theme whose mixture of the playful and graceful impart both innocence and elegance. The melody forms an arch-like shape in its jaunty rise and carefree descent. After this theme and related materials are heard a second time, Beethoven transforms them, making them darker and more intense, and giving them muscle. The main theme periodically recurs, but the order of appearance of the other material gives this a rather loose rondo structure. This work, typically lasting about five minutes, is not one of the composer's deeper creations, but its energy and youthful charm make it a thoroughly worthwhile listening experience.
(All Music Guide)
No.2 in G
Despite its opus number, this is actually a work of Beethoven's very early maturity. The second rondo of the Op. 51 set is more elaborate than its companion, which had been written some years earlier. Technically it's a rondo-sonata, developing two contrasting themes. The first theme is not quite as ornate (and insubstantial) as had been Beethoven's wont in his slow keyboard music only a few years before, but it remains rather courtly. Decoration piles on as the theme develops, but then is stripped away for restatements of the theme in more or less its original form. The rondo notion is justified by the contrasting middle section, an Allegretto in E major. It's delicate and lyrical, but underlying the tune is an unsettled accompaniment of short, repeated notes that soon infects the theme with its agitation. All this is put to rest by an extensive repeat of the opening section. Beethoven originally intended to dedicate this rondo to Countess Giulietta Guicciardi, but for reasons of patronage he instead dedicated his "Moonlight" Sonata to her, inscribing the lesser and more conventional Op. 51 rondos to Countess Henrietta Lichnowsky.
(All Music Guide)