In the period between 1818 and 1819, Beethoven began work on this set of ten variations on folk-derived melodies. During that same time he also produced the Six National Airs with Variations, Op. 105, using the same instrumentation of flute or violin and piano. Both efforts were done for George Thomson, a wealthy Edinburgh-based publisher, whom Beethoven had met over a decade earlier and for whom he had done a number of folk song arrangements sourced mainly in the British Isles, including the 1814 Twenty-five Irish Songs, WoO. 152, and Twenty-six Welsh Songs, WoO. 155, from 1817.
Around the time he wrote this Op. 107 National Airs set of variations, he was also working on the Twelve Scottish Songs, WoO. 156, for Thomson. He would arrange one hundred thirty-two such songs for him, mainly enticed by the publisher's high fees. More than a few times in his career, Beethoven suffered from a shortage of finances, and even when he had money in his pocket he likely still found Thomson's abundant payments a strong inducement. Yet, he also found the folk melodies and his work to fashion variations on them artistically worthwhile, devoting much time and serious effort to them.
The first of the ten sets of variations that comprise Op. 107 is generally regarded as one of Beethoven's finest humorous pieces. Using an Alpine air (E flat), "Ich bin a Tiroler Bua", Beethoven presents the theme with some positively hilarious writing for the flute (or violin), using the instrument as the brunt of his clownishness: first the flute can hardly play a meaningful accompaniment, then it cannot keep up with the busy piano. There follow four colorful and, again, humorous variations, with the flute once more the victim of Beethoven's mischievous pen.
The next piece uses the Scottish "Bonny Laddie, Highland Laddie," producing a fine set of variations. No. 3 takes "Volkslied aus Kleinrussland," and imparts a sense of nearly reckless abandon to this infectious Russian dance theme. The fourth item employs the popular "St. Patrick's Day." This is one of the more successful sets among the ten here, featuring a moving Adagio variation.
No. 5 ("A Madel, ja a madel") is important, too, but mainly for its great difficulty for both instruments. The Sixth, perhaps by no coincidence, bears a resemblance in mood to the composer's Sixth Symphony ("Pastoral"). Using the popular tune from Peggy's Daughter, Beethoven fashions a mostly tranquil, bucolic piece. The composer returns to the world of the third piece in No. 7, using a widely-known Russian tune from "Schöne Minka." The next set may rival the First in quality. The five variations on "O Mary, at thy Window be" are solidly conceived and quite inventive.
The last two sets are based on a Scottish tune ("O, Thou art the Lad of my Heart") and a march, "The Highland Watch." Both are colorful and deftly-wrought creations, with the latter supplying a brilliant conclusion to the collection.
These variation sets were first published in 1819 in both London and Vienna.