By the end of his life, Beethoven had composed nearly 70 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.
From May-July 1796, Beethoven was in Berlin as part of a concert tour. While there, he composed, or at least began, a number of important works, including the Cello Sonatas, Op. 5, and the Variations for cello and piano in G major on "See the conqu'ring hero comes" from Handel's oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45. The variations are dedicated to Princess Christiane von Lichnowsky, wife of Prince Karl von Lichnowsky, one of Beethoven's most important patrons in Vienna, in whose home Beethoven lived between 1793 and 1795. The Variations, WoO 45, were published in 1797 by Artaria in Vienna. As Handel's oratorios were not performed in Vienna at this time, it is likely that the suggestion of the theme came from Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803), a champion of the works of both Bach and Handel and one of Beethoven's early patrons.
The variations of WoO 45 are in the decorative, high-Classical style and maintain the harmonic movement of the theme. We find none of the probing of tonal 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. What we do find is a virtuosity and control unparalleled in Beethoven's earlier works. Also, the variations are notable in that Beethoven had few examples on which to model his compositions for the unusual combination of cello and piano.
Handel's theme is rounded binary structure with a central section that emphasizes the relative minor, E minor, a harmony Beethoven stresses from the first variation. The cello makes its first appearance in the second variation, exaggerating the leaps in the theme over a repeated-note accompaniment in the piano. Leaps are the salient feature of the cello part in Variation No. 3; the busy piano part fills any and all melodic gaps created by the cello. Variation No. 4, the first of the two minor variations, returns to a more recognizable form of the theme while probing the pathetic possibilities of the minor mode. In the fifth and sixth variations, Beethoven divides material between the two instruments, perhaps preparing for the very active cello part of Variation No. 7. The shape of the theme all but disappears in No. 8, the second minor variation, in which phrase lengths are delineated by rising and falling scales in the piano. After a calm, contrasting ninth variation that reduces the theme to its bare bones, an agitated tenth variation erupts that features a soaring, cello part. The 11th variation is technically difficult and highly ornamental, and is followed by a meter change to 3/8, which drastically alters the rhythmic aspects of the theme.