Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Diabelli Variations

The 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli Op. 120, commonly known as the Diabelli Variations, is a set of variations for the piano written between 1819 and 1823 by Ludwig van Beethoven on a waltz composed by Anton Diabelli. One of the supreme compositions for the piano, described as simply "the greatest of all piano works" by pianist Alfred Brendel, it often shares the highest honours with Bach's Goldberg Variations. It also comprises, in the words of Hans von Bülow, "a microcosm of Beethoven's art." Or, as Martin Cooper writes in Beethoven: The Last Decade 1817 - 1827, "The variety of treatment is almost without parallel, so that the work represents a book of advanced studies in Beethoven's manner of expression and his use of the keyboard, as well as a monumental work in its own right."

The work was composed after Diabelli, a well known music publisher and composer, sent a simple waltz in or near 1819 to all the important composers of Austria, including Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny, the eight- year-old Franz Liszt and the Archduke Rudolph, asking each of them to write a variation on it. His plan was to publish all the variations in a patriotic volume and to use the profits to benefit orphans and widows of the Napoleonic Wars. Beethoven had had a connection with Diabelli for a number of years. About a slightly earlier period, 1815, Beethoven's authoritative biographer, Alexander Thayer, writes, "Diabelli, born near Salzburg in 1781, had now been for some years one of the more prolific composers of light and pleasing music, and one of the best and most popular teachers in Vienna. He was much employed by Steiner and Co., as copyist and corrector, and in this capacity enjoyed much of Beethoven's confidence, who also heartily liked him as a man." At the time of his project for variations on a theme of his own by various composers, Diabelli had advanced to become a partner in the publishing firm of Cappi and Diabelli.

The oft-told but now questionable story of the origins of this work is that Beethoven at first refused categorically to participate in Diabelli's project, dismissing the theme as banal, a Schusterfleck or 'cobbler's patch,' unworthy of his time. Not long afterwards, according to the story, upon learning that Diabelli would pay a handsome price for a full set of variations from him, Beethoven changed his mind and decided to show how much could be done with such slim materials. (In another version of the legend, Beethoven was so insulted at being asked to work with material he considered beneath him that he wrote 33 variations in order to demonstrate his prowess.) Today, however, this story is taken as more legend than fact. Its origins are with Anton Schindler, Beethoven's unreliable biographer, whose account conflicts in a number of ways with several established facts, indicating that he did not have first-hand knowledge of events.

At some point or other Beethoven certainly did accept Diabelli's proposal, but rather than contributing a single variation on the theme he conceived a large set of variations. In order to begin work he laid aside his sketching of the Missa Solemnis, completing sketches for four variations by early 1819. By the middle of 1819 he had completed almost two-thirds of the set of thirty-three. In February of 1820, in a letter to the publisher Simrock, he mentioned "grand variations," as yet incomplete. The work was left incomplete for several years - something Beethoven rarely did - while he returned to the Missa Solemnis and worked on his late piano sonatas. In June of 1822 Beethoven offered to Peters "Variations on a waltz for pianoforte alone (there are many)." In the autumn of the same year he was in negotiations with Diabelli, writing to him, "The fee for the Variat. should be 40 ducats at the most if they are worked out on as large a scale as planned, but if this should not take place, it would be set for less." By March or April of 1823 the full set of thirty-three variations was finished. Diabelli published it quickly in June of the same year as Opus 120, adding the following introductory note: "We present here to the world variations of no ordinary type, but a great and important masterpiece worthy to be ranked with the imperishable creations of the old classics . . . . All these variations, through the novelty of their ideas, care in working out, and beauty in the most artful of their transitions, will entitle the work to a place beside Johann Sebastian Bach's famous masterpiece in the same form." In the following year, 1824, it was republished as Volume 1 of a two-volume set entitled Vaterländische Künstlerverein (Patriotic/National/Native Artists' Association), the second volume comprising the fifty variations by fifty composers. Subsequent editions no longer mentioned "Vaterländische Künstlerverein."

The title Beethoven gave to the work has received some comment. His first reference was in his correspondence, where he called it Große Veränderungen über einen bekannten 'Deutschen ("Grand Variations on a well-known German dance"). When it was first published, the title was 33 Veränderungen über einen Walzer von Diabelli. Rather than using the usual word Variationen, which has its origins in Italian, Beethoven chose Veränderungen, this being the period when he had a preference for the German language, using it for expression marks and titles, such as Hammerklavier. But the word Veränderungen can also mean "transformations" rather than merely "variations," and some writers suggest Beethoven was indicating that his aim was to do something more profound in this work than had hitherto been done in the variation form.

Although some commentators find significance in the fact that the work was dedicated to Mme. Antonia von Brentano, she was not Beethoven's first choice. His original plan was to have the work sent to England where by his old friend, Ferdinand Ries, would find a publisher; the dedication would be to the wife of Ries ("You will also receive in a few weeks 33 variations on a theme dedicated to your wife." Letter, April 25, 1823). A delay in the shipment to England resulted in confusion. As Beethoven explained to Ries in a letter, "The variations were not to appear here until after they had been published in London, but everything went askew. The dedication to Brentano was intended only for Germany, as I was under obligation to her and could publish nothing else at the time. Besides, only Diabelli, the publisher here, got them from me. Everything was done by Schindler, a bigger wretch I never knew on God's earth--an arch-scoundrel whom I have sent about his business--I can dedicated another work to your wife in place of it ..."

Whether Schindler's story is true or not that Beethoven at first contemptuously dismissed Diabelli's waltz as a Schusterfleck (rosalia / "cobbler's patch"), there is no doubt the definition fits the work perfectly - "musical sequences repeated one after another, each time modulated at like intervals" - as can be seen clearly in variations 1 through 3.

Considering the rosalias and the simple, unchanging chords repeated so many times in the treble, what can be said about the artistic worth of the waltz? How are we to view it, to balance its simplicity with the vast, complex musical structure Beethoven built upon it? From the earliest days this enigma has drawn comment, and the widest possible range of opinions have been taken on Diabelli's theme. At one end of the spectrum is the admiration of Donald Francis Tovey ("rich in solid musical facts," cast in "reinforced concrete") and Maynard Solomon ("pellucid, brave, utterly lacking in sentimentality or affectation") and the kindly tolerance of Hans von Bülow ("quite a pretty and tasteful little piece, protected from the dangers of obsolescence by what one might call its melodic neutrality"). At the other end is William Kinderman's contempt ("banal," "trite"). Much depends on how one views the overall purpose and structure of the work.

Since the work was first published, commentators have tried to find patterns, even an overall plan or structure for this huge, diverse work, but little consensus has been reached. Several early writers sought to discover clear parallels with the Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach, without great success. Others claimed to have found symmetries, three groups of nine, for example, although the penultimate Fugue had to be counted as five. The work has been analyzed in terms of sonata form, complete with separate 'movements.' What is not disputed, however, is that the work begins with a simple, rather commonplace musical idea, transforms it in many radical ways, and ends with a series of variations on a high spiritual level. Maynard Solomon in The Late Beethoven: Music, Thought, Imagination expresses this idea symbolically, as a journey from the everyday world to a transcendent reality, structure being seen as merely "clusters of variations representing forward and upward motion of every conceivable kind, character and speed." He sees the work divided into four sections, 1-7, 9-13, 15-18 and 21-33, the divisions being made by Variations 8, 14 and 20 which he characterizes as three "strategically placed plateaus [which] provide spacious havens for spiritual and physical renewal in the wake of the exertions which have preceded them."

The most influential writing on the work today is William Kinderman's Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. By tracing the work through its development in Beethoven's sketchbooks, Kinderman discovers which variations were added in the final stage of composition, 1822-23. These variations, according to Kinderman, were inserted at crucial points in the series, and he maintains that they are distinguished from the variations composed earlier by having in common a return to, and special emphasis on, the melodic outline of Diabelli's waltz, as if in parody. For Kinderman, parody is the key to the work. He points out that the simple features of Diabelli's waltz are not featured in most of the variations - "Most of Beethoven's other variations thoroughly transform the surface of Diabelli's theme, and though motivic materials from the waltz are exploited exhaustively, its affective model is left far behind."[15] The purpose of the new variations, according to Kinderman, is to recall Diabelli's waltz, in the mode of parody, in order to keep the cycle from spiraling too far away from its original theme. Without such a device, considering the great variety and complexity of the set, Diabelli's waltz would become superfluous, "a mere prologue to the whole."

Kinderman distinguishes several forms of "parody," pointing out several examples which have no special structural significance and which were composed in the earlier period, such as the humorous parody of the aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni (Var. 22) and the parody of a Cramer finger exercise (Var. 23). He also mentions allusions to Bach (Vars. 24 and 32) and Mozart (Var. 33). But the added, structural variations recall Diabelli's waltz, not Bach or Mozart or Cramer, and clearly highlight its most unimaginative aspects, especially its repetition of the C major tonic chord with G emphasized as the high note and the static harmony thus created. The first of the three added variations is No. 2, a "mock-heroic" march which immediately follows Diabelli to open the set dramatically. Echoing in the right hand the tonic triad of the theme while the left hand simply walks down in octaves Diabelli's descending fourth, it acts as a bridge to Variation 3, which is very remote from Diabelli. Afterwards Diabelli is barely recognizable until Variation 15, the second structural variation, a brief, lightweight piece conspicuously inserted between several of the most powerful variations (Nos. 14, 16 and 17). It recalls and caricatures the original waltz by means of its prosaic harmony. The third and final structural variation, in Kinderman's anlaysis, is No. 25, which shifts Diabelli's monotonous rhythm from the bass to the treble and fills the bass with a simple figure endlessly repeated in a "lumbering caricature." It opens the concluding section of the series which moves from the ridiculous to the sublime, from Diabelli's waltz to Beethoven's minuet, along the way incorporating the history of music from Bach, through Mozart, to the world of Beethoven's own last piano sonatas.

Kinderman summarizes, "Diabelli's waltz is treated first ironically as a march that is half-stilted, half-impressive, and then, at crucial points in the form, twice recapitulated in amusing caricature variations. At the conclusion of the work, in the Fugue and last variation, reference to the melodic head of Diabelli's theme once again becomes explicit - indeed, it is hammered into the ground. But any further sense of the original contect of the waltz is lacking. By means of three parody variations, 1, 15, and 25, Beethoven established a series of periodic references to the waltz that draw it more closely into the inner workings of the set, and the last of these gives rise to a progression that transcends the theme once and for all. That is the central idea of the Diabelli Variations."

The reputation of the Diabelli Variations ranks alongside Bach's Goldberg Variations. However, while in the Goldberg Variations Bach deprived himself of the resources available from taking the melody of the theme as a guiding principle, thereby gaining an independence in melodic matters that enabled him to attain far more variety and expanse, Beethoven made no such sacrifice. He exploited the melody, in addition to the harmonic and rhythmic elements, and by doing so succeeded in fusing them all into a set of variations of incredible analytical profundity. In addition to the analytical aspects, Beethoven enlarged upon the dimensions of this musical material so that the Diabelli Variations are properly called 'amplifying variations'.

Numbers 24 and 32 are more or less textbook fugues that show Beethoven's debt to Bach, a debt further highlighted in variation 31, the last of the slow minor variations, with its direct reference to the Goldberg Variations.

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