The Diabelli Variations, Opus 120
We can wonder if it was just fun, or vanity in wanting to be associated with the best composers alive, or curiosity in seeing what would happen. Nonetheless, in 1819 Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) wrote a waltz theme described by many then and now as banal, cheap, trite, a mere trifling. Diabelli, a publisher and composer of more lightweight musical ditties, then presented it to the greatest composers alive. Schubert, Ries, Czerny, the 11-year-old Franz Liszt, a total of 50 of them including Beethoven. Each was to write a single variation. His idea then was to publish them all together. Our irascible hero wanted nothing to do with the project. He thought that Diabelli’s theme was beneath him and declined. But his mind clearly changed for over the next four years he wrote a set of 33 variations that some have called the greatest of all piano works ever!
A theme with variations is one of the oldest forms in music. The greatest example of the form from the Baroque period, 1600c to 1750c, is the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, a theme with 32 variations with the theme recapitulated at the end. (Remember the last movement of the Beethoven opus 109 piano sonata? It is a theme with 6 variations and the theme restated to close it.) It is a form very much in favor during the Classical period, 1740c to 1800c. Decoration, changes of mode, tempo, character, were all common techniques employed. But in Beethoven’s hands, we explore every tiny component of the theme – the little turn at the beginning, the incessantly repeated notes, rests, accompaniments figures, cascading or ascending passages, etc., but more, he takes us to a different world of emotion and psychology. Especially near the end he shows us his world and how he has seen the universe. He finishes with a charming minuet, a not overly fond form for him. Looking over his shoulder maybe? Waving goodbye to the past?
Beethoven titled this piece Große Veränderungen über einen bekannten Deutschen Tanz (“Grand Variations on a well-known German dance”). The word Veranderungen in German not only means variations, but also transformations which is what these feel like to me. This piece is monstrous, over 50’ long. It’s both fun and difficult to listen to. It is diabolically (inevitable, right?) difficult to play. Prepare to be delighted, dazzled, and moved as you listen to this remarkable masterpiece.
I will attach links to some brilliant interpretations plus a session of Stephen Kovacevich coaching a young pianist on the wondrous Diabelli Variations of Beethoven.