Several years ago I happened to be chatting with a pianist I knew at the end of a recital he had given. The program included Ludwig van Beethoven’s WoO 80 set of 32 variations on an original theme in C minor, a piece that requires far less time to play than its title might suggest. (It is one of the pieces that Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded for RCA, and that recording clocks in at slightly less than eight minutes.)
The first thing this pianist said backstage was, “Did you notice that I missed a variation?” The honest answer was, “No, I did not.” I have not listened to this piece enough to internalize it quite that thoroughly; and I am not one to count variations, even when I know how many there are.
Today, while listening to another pianist perform WoO 80, it occurred to me that another reply could have been equally valid (if not more so): “Does it matter?” For those who never gave the matter much thought, “WoO” is the standard abbreviation for “Werke ohne Opuszahl” (works without opus number), meaning that Beethoven never published this composition. As I see it, there are two possible reasons why he bothered to write it down at all:
- The variations emerged while he happened to be improvising for his own pleasure (an activity that Pete Seeger would much later call “goofing off”); and he was pleased enough with what he did that he decided to document the experience.
- Rather than prepare such a document for personal pleasure, he realized that it could have useful pedagogical value.
In the latter case Beethoven would be following a pedagogical strategy that I have previously attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach, the basic principle that, where making music is concerned, proficiency in execution through technical dexterity and a capacity for invention go hand in hand. Thus WoO 80 provided a way to demonstrate to the student that even the simplest of themes could allow for considerable invention, rather than just using Beethoven’s own variations as a basis for building up powerful keyboard technique.
From this point of view, the number of variations is less important than the extent of their diversity. Beethoven could easily have had the student work on the 32 variations he had written. Then, once the student had demonstrated that he had the technical chops to play them all, Beethoven could well have said, “Now take that theme and work our your own set of variations. Mine don’t matter any more.”
This perspective can also be found in an interview that Bernard Greenhouse gave to Nicholas Delbanco, in which he discussed the lessons he received from Pablo Casals in 1946. Casals had Greenhouse work on Bach’s BWV 1008 solo cello suite for D minor by playing it for him and then asking him to reproduce his performance as “an absolute copy.” Greenhouse did as he was told, making his copy as absolute as could be imagined. This was when the story got interesting:
And after several weeks of working on that one suite of Bach’s, finally, the two of us could sit down and perform and play all the same fingerings and bowings and all of the phrasings alike. And I really had become a copy of the Master. It was as if that room had stereophonic sound—two cellos producing at once. And at that point, when I had been able to accomplish this, he said to me, “Fine. Now just sit. Put your cello down and listen to the D Minor Suite.” And he played through the piece and changed every bowing and every fingering and every phrasing and all the emphasis within the phrase. I sat there, absolutely with my mouth open, listening to a performance which was heavenly, absolutely beautiful. And when he finished he turned to me with a broad grin on his face, and he said, “Now you’ve learned how to improvise in Bach. From now on you study Bach this way.”
In other words Casals appreciated that learning improvisation was as important as learning execution. Furthermore, it would not surprise me if, had Greenhouse been bold enough to start adding some tropes of his own to the music as Bach had written it (whole new phrases, rather than just embellishments on the written ones), that Casals would have grinned even more broadly, realizing that his pupil was now in the space in which Bach made his music, rather than merely the domain of interpreting marks on paper.
This approach to invention as part of execution is accepted as common practice by those who make jazz, and it may be about time that its validity in the classical repertoire be recognized as just as significant.