This canon was probably written for five voices, though some catalogues of his works list it as being for just two. It is an unusual piece of music, since it can be performed in several different ways. It is a so-called puzzle canon, and one might even regard it as a forerunner to the aleatoric music of the twentieth century. Beethoven usually wrote his canons for two or more parts or voices, and fashioned them in strict imitation. The text was usually of his own devising, and the piece was typically written for a friend or acquaintance as a gift.
In the puzzle canon genre Beethoven usually supplied only one voice and left it for the recipient of the work and others to decide where the second and other voices would enter. Of course, there could be more than one acceptable solution to the puzzle, especially as multiple voices are added. Thus, a performance of this work might not match way the piece was conceived in the composer's head, if indeed there had been only one.
Beethoven studied the composition of canons with Albrechtsberger in 1794 adn 1795, but only had only written seven of his forty-three by 1813, the year he began taking the form seriously. This Ars longa, vita brevis ("Art is long, life is short") text has two other settings, desginated as WoO 170 and WoO 192. Many of his canons had humorous texts, but this one was obviously of a more serious nature. Yet, the music itself is rather a joke: the notes constituting the theme are all from the tonic triad, thus allowing the second and additional parts to enter almost anywhere without creating any kind of harmonic conflict.
Most of Beethoven's canons are short, and this one is no exception, lasting about a half-minute. The theme is simple and its range, as suggested above, is rather limited. As a piece of music, it is interesting but hardly something one would return to, except to examine further possible ways to solve its puzzle.