My Country ‘Tis of Thee

Theme and Variations on “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” L. Beethoven (1770-1827)

“A Patriotic Tune” W. Zeitler

In 1803 Beethoven was planning on visiting England for a piano concert tour. In general in England he found benevolent publishers and philharmonic societies which performed his compositions. A popular music format of the day was “theme and variations” — take a well known tune and write variations on it. Beethoven was particularly renowned for this, and for his English tour he wrote two new sets: one on “Rule Britannia” and one on “God Save the King”. The concert tour didn’t work out after all — he never made it to England.

Beethoven was an ardent advocate democracy and equal rights for all humanity (which rubbed the fur of many of his aristocratic patrons the wrong way). Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” (Schiller had originally titled it “Ode to Freedom”) which Beethoven famously set to music in his 9th Symphony, was a paean celebrating the brotherhood and unity of all mankind — something like an early 19th century version of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

So, if Beethoven had had the opportunity to visit America, I have no doubt he would have retitled it “Variations on My Country ‘Tis of Thee”. And, this is the only set of his variations I know based on a tune we still know.