Notes from the Keyboard – Beethoven – 6 Variations on a theme by Paisiello
I hope that you have enjoyed trying out my suggestions in my previous post and found them helpful.
Today, we will be looking at Beethoven’s Six variations for piano on ‘Nel cor più non mi sento’ from Giovanni Paisiello’s opera La Molinara, WoO 70.
It is a beautiful little piece which deserves to be perfomed more often, and so it fills me with great joy to be able to share some of my ideas on it with you.
Tip Number 1: The theme is the foundation upon which everything is built
The old saying that one should build one’s house upon a foundation of rock couldn’t be truer when it comes to playing a set of theme and variations. Your listeners will thank you for your efforts to present the theme as lucidly as you can at the outset.
To do this—and also because the melody in the theme is from a sung duet—you have to shape the melody as beautifully as you can, taking great care to plan the climaxes and to note the where one phrase ends and another begins.
Turning our attention now to the printed music, we can see that the theme is constructed as follows:
2 bars — 2 bars — 4 bars
2 bars — 2 bars — 2 bars (fermata)
Ultimately, how you split the bars into phrases also depends on your interpretation on how the theme should be phrased: apart from the obvious breathing points, the asterisked 6 bars above might be further divided into 4 bars followed by 2 bars. The beauty of music is that you get to choose!
The first 8 bars have a climax on the E in the melody in the second half of bar 6 (end of first line of music shown above). The following set of 6 bars leads to the D major chord with the fermata—a rhetorical pause. Finally, the final climax falls on the first beat of the penultimate bar (bar 19) where there’s an acciaccatura of a descending 6th from E to G in the melody. As you play this melody without the accompaniment, you will get a sense that as a whole, the theme leads to this final climax. There is a feeling that all the other climaxes are simply preludes to this final one, which leads to a satisfactory conclusion of the theme. All you need to do whilst playing this theme is to be very conscious of this overall shape for it to shine forth in your playing. Do not exaggerate the shaping; rather, let the melody flow and grow naturally, with one phrase following on from the previous one the way one sentence follows another in a delivered speech.
Bonus: take note of the large intervals in the melody; for example, the descending 6th on the final climax. Try singing them. You might be surprised at how expressive they can sound when they are surrounded by stepwise motion in the melody. This should give you a clue for how you could plan your phrasing. Feel free to try out a few options and decide on one which you feel best expresses the character of the theme.
Tip Number 2: Rotation is a gift
Now we jump to the 6th and final variation with the Coda. Although every variation has its own unique set of challenges, in the limited space of this blog post I feel that you will benefit from more attention being spent on the last variation.
The final variation begins with a stream of semiquavers in both hands. If you look and listen closely, you will notice that the theme and melody is traced by the upper notes in the right hand. In order to
highlight this beautiful melody, you have to ensure that the melody stands out from the accompaniment. Within the context of the right hand, the melody is the higher note and the accompaniment is the lower note.
The most efficient way to achieve this is not to freeze your hand into one position when you play. You must allow your hand to rotate freely as you do when you twist a circular door knob.
Once you’ve understood this need for rotary movement, you are now ready to ensure that there is more speed when you rotate your hand towards the upper note. The upper note will naturally sound louder because of this.
Since the melody is a variation of the theme, you must also shape it—and this is where the foundation work you did for the theme really pays off. The challenge this time is that you mostly only have your fourth and fifth fingers to do it with. By controlling the speed of rotation, you will be able to control the volume of one upper note in relation to the next upper note. Start slowly, listen carefully, be patient, and when you have mastered the shaping of the melody at a slower tempo, gradually increase the speed until you arrive at the performance tempo.
I hope the above has given you good food for thought and I welcome any feedback and questions that you may have. In addition to that, if you would like to me to help you with a specific difficulty that you have in a piece you are learning, please feel free to write it in the comments below and I will address it in a future post.
Happy exploring and practising!
Malaysian concert pianist Lee Jae Phang continues to astound audiences with his virtuosity, expressiveness, and searching intellect. He has been lauded for his “great ability to play a wide variety of repertoire with great interpretation and passion” and for his spellbinding accounts of complex masterworks such as Tippett’s Piano Sonata No. 3.
Along with 15 other people, Lee Jae once held a Guinness World Record for the largest number of people playing the same piano simultaneously.
Lee Jae is also a notable accompanist and chamber musician and complements all his perfoming with his passion for teaching. He strongly believes that music enriches our lives and loves helping young pianists reach their full musical potential.
More information can be found on his website: https://phanglj12.wixsite.com/lee-jae-phang