By the end of his life, Beethoven had composed nearly seventy sets of variations. Most of the early ones were based on themes by other composers and were not given opus numbers, which Beethoven reserved for what he felt to be his more substantial, important works. The Variations in A major on a Russian Dance from Wranitzky's "Das Waldmädchen," WoO 71, were composed probably in November, 1796, while Beethoven was touring Bratislava and Budapest. The set was dedicated to Countess Anna Margarete von Browne, whose husband, Count Johann von Browne (1767-1827), was one of Beethoven's chief early patrons. The Countess also received the dedications of the Piano Sonatas, Op. 10, and the Variations, WoO 76. The WoO 71 Variations were published in April, 1797, by Artaria in Vienna. The Brownes once gave Beethoven a gift of a riding horse. Beethoven soon forgot about the animal, and his servant began to hire it out for his own benefit. When Beethoven received a bill for the horse's food, he was reminded of the animal and eventually got rid of it.
Das Waldmädchen (The Forest Maiden), a ballet with music by Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808) and scenario and choreography by G. Traffieri, received its première at the Kärntnertor Theater in Vienna on September 23, 1796, playing another sixteen times that year. Undoubtedly, Beethoven hoped to capitalize on the opera's popularity by composing a set of variations on one of its themes. Apparently, the "thème russe" on which Beethoven based his variations was composed by Giovanni Giornovichi (?1740-1804), not Wranitzky.
The theme, in A major and marked Allegretto, is a perfect example of a Classical-era periodic melody, except that the main tune is five measures long. This five-measure idea happens twice, first moving to the dominant, then the tonic. A contrasting idea follows, which is coupled to a return of the opening theme. Typically, this second half is also repeated. In all but the eleventh and twelfth variations of WoO 71, Beethoven follows this repetition scheme. All variations are in A major except the third, seventh and eleventh, which are in A minor.
In general, the variations of WoO 71 are in the decorative, high-classical style and maintain the harmonic movement of the theme. We find none of the probing of harmonic relationships as in the Variations in F major, Op. 34, and none of the multiplicity of material to be varied as in the Variations in E flat, Op. 35. At times, Beethoven stresses a single aspect of the theme. In the first variation, for example, the thirds and seconds that characterize the theme are expanded to tenths and ninths, while the actual stepwise movement of the theme is made clear in the second variation in the octaves of the right hand. The theme moves to the left hand in the fourth variation and Beethoven's writing becomes more linear in the sixth, as the hands enter separately. The seventh variation, in A minor, makes extensive use of the pitch B flat and its pathetic half-step relationship to the tonic. The eighth variation inverts the leaps of the theme while maintaining the basic melodic shape and the tenth variation, with its triplet motion, emphasizes the repeated-note characteristic of the theme. The Allegro coda develops chiefly a motive from the central, contrasting segment of the theme before moving through fragments of the main theme and closing in a propulsive 6/8 meter.