Op. 14 No. 2 Part two

Movement 2: Andante

Form: Theme and variations

Reading time: Approx. 15 minutes

All sound from the sonata examples are me playing



The second movement of this sonata is a theme with variations. The theme starts like this:

Where does a strange-sounding melody like this find its roots? In my opinion, it derives from something that was very popular during Beethoven’s time: military band music. Or, as it was called, “Turkish music”, played by “Turkish bands”.

The sounds most of us associate with military band music are drums and woodwinds. It has a strong, exciting rhythm. As far as we know, this music derives from Turkey, and was the music following the elite soldiers of the Turkish army, the janissaries. The instruments used were drums, cymbals, tambourines and triangles. In time, high pitched woodwinds, like the piccolo flute, was used to get a penetrating, high-pitched sound.

A military march has this interesting character: if you are marching with it, it boosts your morale. If the music is marching against you, it is intimidating.

The Turkish military music was heard through the wars of conquests of the Ottoman Empire in the West. When the Turkish Army retreated, they left instruments from the bands. Actually, at the Battle of Petrovaradin in 1697, a complete Turkish band was captured. Gradually, bands were established from released Turkish musicians.

By the time Mozart composed The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Turkish style had been nicely, artsy packaged and was not really the symbol of raging warriors anymore.


The first military march that became famous world-wide was La Marseillaise. But here is an example of how it probably sounded in earlier days. This march, Oh du Deutschland, ich muss marschieren (Deutschland meaning the Austrian Empire, not Germany of today) was actually played during a battle in 1806:

Beethoven incorporated this “military” style (the march rhythm and the woodwind sound) in many works, for example in this section of the Finale of the 9th Symphony:


Now raise your hand if you, like me, want to run to a concert with this piece right now.

Back to the theme of the second movement: it is not a military march, but it has the influence of it. To make it even better, Beethoven plays it out with humor, making huge accents off-beat (which would certainly confuse any marching people)

It is typical of Beethoven: take something of a certain character ( a rigid march) and transform it to almost the opposite in character ( witty, surprising and with a soft touch).

Beethoven was quite obsessed with how to make a movement, or later on a whole piece, coherent. He often wanted a narrative and direction from the first note to the last. In variation movements this might be a bit of a problem. Take the general first movement for example: there are different themes following each other, and you can create tension in between the themes, which is building momentum, a crucial part in music that lasts longer than 3-4 minutes.

Let’s take a movie analogy again. A movie plays out with one scene after another, and they build on each other, creating a drama that has highs and lows, intensity and all kinds of emotions that the director tries to build. At the same time there is a storyline. It’s really not that far away from what Beethoven wants to do in his music.

But in a theme with variations, you have a theme that just keeps coming back. That is, to continue the movie analogy, a little bit as if you have the opening scene of a movie, let’s say in Hitchcock’s The Birds for example. A man comes in to buy lovebirds in a pet store. He mistakenly takes the woman standing there as working there and asks her for advice. She is obviously attracted to him and therefore plays along. It opens up all kind of questions for the viewer and we expect the story to continue, right?

But, let’s pretend this was a theme with variations. Then, after this scene the same thing would happen again, just with some variations. Maybe he wants to buy a dog instead of birds this time. Or they have another set of clothes. But we are stuck in the story-telling, aren’t we?

So, here we will see how Beethoven creates a theme with variations but still manages to create momentum, to build something we can follow, or a sort of storyline if you like.

In the first variation Beethoven plays the theme in the left hand. But now, instead of the march-like character, it is legato and brought out like a beautiful melody. It is almost like it is another personality in there. On top of that, he adds an upper voice in the right hand, which after a little while takes on its own life as an independent melody. It brings a new, “shiny” sound to the music. Now it almost feels like there are two singers, a quite far cry from the rigid march that was the theme:

The music has quietly gone from having one note per beat to having two notes per beat. The trick is very, very simple: ‘heat up” the momentum by doubling the notes within the beat. And we have gone from a humor stricken march to an operatic duet.

Second variation: Beethoven continues to build a seemingly faster momentum, but in an incredible subtle way.The melody is back in the right hand. But, on the off-beat (so you will now hear the melody on top again, but not “on the beat” as before but “off the beat”). It sounds like this:

Let’s compare the two versions, Var 1 and 2:

Everyone might not agree here, but the fact that we had a form of love duet in the first variation is perfectly followed by heightened excitement, that is my feeling of this. Momentum is building.

If you listen carefully, you will note that the melody went from being lovingly played in a lower voice in the first variation, to being more restless in the second variation. Beethoven has made the music more agitated by moving the melody from on-beat to off-beat. Simple, but how Beethoven does all the tricks and how it plays out with such beautiful results…is why Beethoven was a genius. The trick itself, anybody could do.


The third, and last variation, continues with four notes on the beat:

First variation was a duet, second had excitement in the air. The third variation has both. The two hands plays out like a duet but the music moves at an even more restless pace now.

Thus, we have gone from one note on the beat in the theme, two notes on the beat in the first and second variations, to four notes on the beat in the third. This was a way for Beethoven to build momentum in variations. If you know the Appassionata and the op. 111, then you can hear the same thing being played out in the slow movement of both sonatas.

However, it’s important to know that the knowledge per se is of this is not that important, it’s just a technique. Without this technique creating some musical effect or meaning, it’s not really worth much. And how Beethoven surprises us is quite wonderful. Start with a march-like theme, continue as a lovely duet which get lovelier and more exciting as each variation goes by. The style of the theme derives from war. The movement turns into a lovely, beautiful and humorous piece, full of charm. Quite a feat.


Here you can hear the variations side to side, and I added a metronome to every second beat, count the notes in between the beats if you like:


To finish the movement, Beethoven takes a humorous trick from Haydn’s book. Perhaps you have heard Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony?

And now I want to go to a concert and hear that Symphony, too.
Can you imagine the first time that Symphony was played and the funny shock it must have created?

Anyhow, Beethoven ends the sonata with the same “big bang surprise” effect:

I still have not played this movement in concert and not getting amused rumblings in the audience after that last chord. Once a lady in the first row got really scared and jumped up from her chair!

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