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8.557384-85 - BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
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Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

Around 1819, the music-publisher and composer Anton Diabelli invited several composers to contribute one variation to a collection based on his own waltz theme. Beethoven initially refused. Instead, he began sketching his own collection of variations based on Diabelli’s waltz. Not completed until 1823, the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120, would become Beethoven’s last large-scale composition for solo piano.

This late work poses numerous interpretive possibilities. Several scholars have attempted to describe the Diabelli Variations in terms of a transcendental journey, a testament to Beethoven’s spirituality, and how this manifests itself in his late compositional style. The notion of retrospection (and along with that, introspection) is one key to unlocking the magic behind this piece. The Variations, indeed, assume a monumental narrative structure. Much as Dante provided a guide through his Divine Comedy, so does Beethoven, but Beethoven’s guide(s) turns out not to be the theme, but rather, the musical genres and styles both from the past and the contemporaneous. One can unravel this work by tracing a carefully planned narrative of retrospection, through the use of parody and humour, imitation, and transformation of musical styles. Expressively, this retrospective approach contributes to the deeper meaning behind the work. Further, the work can be viewed in three large sections, each one more outright in its borrowing of musical styles — first, an exploration of the theme, then integration, and finally, reconciliation. The result of referencing and exploring the musical past is a composition unparalleled in its inventiveness and creativity.

From the outset, Diabelli’s theme poses an immediate compositional problem: how does one proceed from the relatively simple harmonic scheme and repetitive textures? Suffice it to say Beethoven’s solution is one of the most remarkable in musical history. In order to make a secure emotional transition between the theme and the ensuing variations, Beethoven works in narrative fashion, moving the music gradually away from the theme, and by the end of the work, transforming it into other-worldly magnificence.

To do this, Beethoven leaves the humourous theme at once and begins his music with a parodying March marked Maestoso. The time signature has changed abruptly from 3/4 to 4/4 and clearly exhibits the composer’s disdain for the “common” generator of his proceeding creations. Similarly, the second variation parodies the first while restoring the triple metre. The exploration of the theme (the goal of the first large section) begins, like many sets of technical variations, with the appearance of rhythmic diminutions. The difference here is that instead of this taking place within a few variations, the process continues methodically over the first ten. It culminates in two powerful trills in the left hand (Variation X). With the trill (the ultimate diminution), the first part of the journey is complete — exploration gives rise to integration. Interestingly, while the first ten variations explore the theme, the possibilities are far from exhausted. In fact the musical aspects explored earlier become new material for subsequent variations, variations upon variations.

The following section gradually pulls away from the obviousness of the theme, while at the same time integrating methodical references to musical history. The eleventh and twelfth variations are lyrical, even pastoral, in nature. One of the most interesting variation techniques Beethoven employs is contrast. Variation XIII completely reverses the peaceful effects of Variations XI and XII. Sonorous chords, disrupted by energetic silence, pull the music into a new realm. This variation reduces the opening waltz to a smattering of sound forcing its way through silence.

In contrast, Variation XIV is a French Overture topic. Expressively, this is a generic recall of ancient music. As a rule, variations normally look back to their own theme, but here Beethoven interrupts a series of connected variations with the high style. Further, this variation is couched between the silence of Variation XIII and the Presto of Variation XV. Here Beethoven shifts the metre to duple, as if to throw the listener off balance (recalling the metric shift of the first variation). One of the shortest variations in the entire work, this interlude acts as yet another parody.

The next variations, XVI and XVII, are linked, and also look to other musical styles. These two variations function as etudes, a relatively new genre. The technical problem is divided between the hands (first left hand, then right). Variation XVIII can be viewed as an emotional retrenching; compared to the preceding etudes, it represents a moment of respite. The parallel octaves between the hands are a new texture, and resemble Baroque fortspinnung in its treatment. Variation XIX also recalls a Baroque idiom, the canon. Its character is playful and outright. By contrast, Variation XX exists in a completely new world. As the end of the second section, it is monumental in its brevity, its texture, and its high degree of dissonance. The simplistic recall of the descending fourth motive, however, is disturbingly mocking. The harmonic complexity amidst the low register creates a seriousness that foreshadows later variations. Integration is complete. But Beethoven has as of yet provided no answers. Rather, he settles (in Variation XX) into a moment of repose before proceeding. Besides its Baroque mood, the twentieth variation distinctly recalls Op. 111. The final stage of the work, spiritual reconciliation and transcendence, is the process whereby Beethoven reconciles the musical past with the innocence of the theme. In doing so, he subjects the music to progressive and forward-looking processes. The result is spiritual transcendence, literally, the past links with the future, and the spiritual links with the commonplace.

The third section begins in a world totally separate from the twentieth variation. Variation XXI stridently mocks Variation XX. The humour of the trill is bounced around various registers in a duple metre. This humour is short-lived, however. A slower episode is interpolated, only to be brazenly interrupted by the earlier material. Essentially, this variation longs for itself.

Variation XXII is the most obvious parody. Beethoven borrows the opening of “Notte e giorno faticar” from Leporello’s aria in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is a testament to Beethoven’s genius that he can incorporate this music into variation form. As a parody variation, this is the only one completely in unison. Its humorous level of discourse illustrates further mockery, while at the same time it nostalgically recalls the descending fourth of the opening of the theme. The occasional use of operatic or symphonic style music will be taken over by choral-like textures by the end of the piece, a style which consumed the composer near the end of his life.

Variation XXIII presents itself as another etude. It compresses the original 32 measures into sixteen. Emotionally, it provides a transition between the humorous world of the Mozart parody and the following Fughetta, Variation XXIV, which represents a return to a high, learned level, reminiscent of an a cappella choir. In doing so, this variation signals a more ominous emotional underpinning to the work, one that will become more obvious in the ensuing variations.

Variation XXV restores the feeling of the waltz. The circular left-hand sixteenths (semiquavers) ingratiate the music with elegance and dignity. Literally, Variations XXIV and XXV reclaim the high compositional styles of the Baroque and Classic periods (fugue and minuet) as a means of redefining the clumsiness of the theme.

Variations XXVI to XXVIII function as a unit. The texture thickens between the three, and so does the distancing from the original theme. It is here that Beethoven leaves the world of the theme and physically (aurally) captures a spiritual one. During these three variations, Beethoven challenges the obsessive, repetitive nature of the theme until it nearly implodes. This makes way for the climb into an intense, moving close. By Variation XXIX, the mode is minor, the mood is dramatic and the theme is arioso-like. It is the beginning of a trilogy of minor variations and the sobbing motive indicates the change in expressive mode. Variation XXX continues the ascent toward apotheosis. Set in a “learned” texture, this music is an imitative, SATB interlude. Variation XXXI is the final minor variation. It is marked Largo and uses both an aria and a sicilienne topic simultaneously. The Largo is the deepest emotional cavern of the work. It stands completely polarised emotionally from the beginning of the work. Now the music displays solemnity, introspection, and a longing for comfort, at once desperate and serene. Ultimately, this attempt to reconcile musical pasts and present drives the music into a spiritual realm. Beethoven does this by looking back to earlier dance forms as well as forward to the belcanto grace of Chopin’s coloratura writing.

Beethoven has overcome the hopelessness of the three previous variations in the Fugue. Again he resorts to the musical complexity of the Baroque to explore musical solutions. The power of this music is partly contained in the fact that the fugal subject contains every element of Diabelli’s original and common theme. A cadenza-like passage bridges the fugue and the final variation: Tempo di Menuetto moderato. Here Beethoven adopts a galant, lighter mood to counteract the depth of the fugue. Eventually the Minuet disappears into the higher registers of the instrument. This texture is a direct recasting of the ending of Beethoven’s own Sonata, Op. 111. The ethereal sounds represent the world of spiritual transcendence—one accomplished by a nostalgic return to Beethoven’s own music.

The penultimate pianissimo chord is triumphantly contrasted with the forte that ends this sublime piece. Indeed the Sonata, Op. 111, does not end as heroically. Perhaps this is indicative of Beethoven’s final say at the piano. It is this author’s contention that Beethoven chooses this ending to recall more strictly Diabelli’s theme. In this final sound of the piece Beethoven grasps Diabelli’s theme and literally shakes every ounce of possibility out of it, where most of us would have seen nothing. The final chord balances out the theme; it originally opened in a different register and with a piano dynamic. Beethoven offsets this tentative, naive quality, with a higher register and a forte dynamic. At once the work ends, with a reconciliation between commonplace and transcendental, and between the past and what will become the musical future. It represents creativity and genius of the highest order. The Diabelli Variations are, at least on some level, a compendium of musical history, a cyclic, self-referencing, compositional homage to Beethoven’s musical predecessors and successors, which is captivatingly poignant. Spirituality takes many forms in this piece, from the innocence of the beginning to the steadfastly triumphant, to the inherently reflective and psychological, and to the violent and intensely philosophical. It is a rewarding yet difficult journey to experience this work, both for performer and listener, not unlike the life journey itself.

Lia M. Jensen

University of Nebraska-Lincoln


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