The work consists of an eight-bar main theme and 32 variations. A chord progression in the left hand, based upon a descending chromatic bass, serves as an important structural device. The short and sparsely melodic theme, as well as the emphasis on the bass line, reflect a possible influence of the chaconne. The variations differ in character, technical difficulty and dynamics.
Var. I, II, III consist of arpeggios and repeating notes. The only difference among these three variations is which hands play the arpeggios; in Var. I, the right hand does so, Var. II, the left hand, and Var. III, both hands.
Var. IV is a variation looking into precision of staccato, and the descending bass line is quite prominent.
Var. V is a quiet variation looking at the contrast between staccato and legato.
Var. VI is a turbulent variation marked fortissimo as well as "sempre staccato e sforzato." The sforzatos are indicated in the music.
Var. VII and VIII are markedly quieter variations than Var. VI but musically are more difficult.
Var. IX is a variation with many slurs.
Var. X and XI are marked ^sempre forte^ with an inversion of the main theme, with the only difference between them being that Var. X's thirty-second notes are played with the left hand, and Var. XI's thirty-second notes with the right hand.
Var. XII-XVI mark the Maggiore (Italian for "major") and are thus emotionally different from the other variations. Var. XII is marked "semplice", so it should not be overplayed, while XIII is even quieter. Var. XIV has staccato thirds, and XV and XVI contain numerous, albeit slow, octaves.
Var. XVII marks the return of the minor and is marked "dolce", implying that it should be played more quietly.
Var. XVIII offers a stark contrast to Var. XVII, with very rapid right hand scales.
Var. XIX is a variation with arpeggios in the form of sixteenth triplets, as in the Waldstein Sonata.
Var. XX and XXI are technically difficult variations with scales.
Var. XXII is noted for its tenutos and sforzatos.
Var. XXIII offers a contrast to Var. XXII and thus is marked pianissimo. It consists of detached chords.
Var. XXIV and XXV are light (thus quiet) variations emphasizing staccato and leggiermente, respectively.
Var. XXVI and XXVII are technically difficult and consist of thirds.
Var. XXVIII is a stark contrast to XXVII, as it is marked semplice.
Var. XXIX consists of difficult arpeggios in the form of sixteenth note triplets.
Var. XXX is a contrast to XXIX and is quite slow.
Var. XXXI is even quieter than XXX and technically simple, consisting of left hand arpeggios, and the theme is repeated in the right hand in its original form.
Var. XXXII is the last variation, a technically difficult and fast passage. Its main theme consists of left hand 32nd notes and the right hand playing two sevenths, and a group of eight 32nd notes.
Typically, performances of this piece last from 10 to 12 minutes.
More pieces by Beethoven
- Missa Solemnis
- Overture, Leonore No. 3
- Overture, Namensfeier
- Overture, The Creatures of Prometheus
- Piano Concerto No. 1 (Op. 15)
- Piano Concerto No. 2
- Piano Concerto No. 3
- Piano Concerto No. 4
- Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor
- Symphony No. 2
- Symphony No. 3, Eroica
- Symphony No. 7
- Symphony No. 9, Choral
- Violin Concerto