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Diabelli Variations

Diabelli’s Waltz

It was probably nearly 40 years ago that I first encountered the Diabelli Variations. Although his most famous work in this genre, they were not the first I heard and it was another couple of decades before I listened to them critically. I do however remember what first drew me to them, and that was the back story of their creation. The version of the story that I first learned was simplified and probably at least partly apocryphal, but it appealed to my understanding of Beethoven’s sometimes irascible character and his attitude to anyone whose artistic sensibilities he considered beneath him, which would have included almost everybody. Essentially the story is this: In 1819 minor composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli approached 50 of the best known contemporary Viennese composers and asked them each to provide a single variation on a theme of his own, which he intended to publish to benefit widows and orphans of the recently ended Napoleonic Wars, and of course to benefit his own newly started publishing business. Upon receiving this request Beethoven, incensed at his inclusion in a group of composers whom he considered well beneath his own artistic talents, but also highly dismissive of Diabelli’s shabby little beer hall “Waltz” theme (he called it a Schusterfleck or ‘cobbler’s patch’) declined the offer and instead wrote 33 variations of his own which became his final great work for the piano, and one of the greatest of the entire piano repertoire.

So how bad is the theme? After over 150 years of more or less ridicule by scholars, a few have recently suggested that’s it’s not as bad as had been previously thought. From Beethoven’s perspective though, it was almost child like. 4 bars of repeated C major chords (in their most simple form – C- E – G) with a simple bouncing bassline using the same three notes of the chords, and then 4 more bars of the same in G major. This is followed by a simple 4 bar upward stepwise progression (called a rosalia) from F through G to A and finally a standard 2-5-1 cadence to G which leads back to the repeat. The second half of the theme is sort of a mirror image of the first, starting with G and using the same mechanisms (including the rosalia) to return to C major. There’s really no melody as such, and the harmonic progression is as simple as they come, bouncing back and forth between the tonic and dominant. Diabelli’s one trick is the rosalia, which Beethoven no doubt would have considered cheating, as it is perhaps the least inventive way of moving harmonically to the final cadence leading back to the dominant. It may have been this feature that he was referring to when he used the schusterfleck descriptive.

After initially disparaging the theme, Beethoven seems to have comprehended the possibilities that it offered. The extreme harmonic and melodic simplicity represented almost a blank canvas for him to fill in as he saw fit. And using it he was able to create some of his most sublime, as well as some of his most sarcastic creations. He did this largely by taking individual bits of the theme and building variations around them, starting with the opening turn in the right hand. This feature isn’t even an intrinsic part of the melody, but rather merely an ornament decorating the first note. Other fragments used are the descending 4th/5th in the first/fifth measures, the repeated notes, and the 3-note ascending sequence used in the rosalia. In some of the variations, this fragmented motivic material is treated almost contemptuously, in others it is used to build short tone poems of great beauty and emotional depth. Often, Beethoven seems particularly to be mocking Diabelli’s little schusterfleck, by replacing it with harmonic complexities far beyond a mere rosalia.

The great pianist Alfred Brendel has written, “The theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted”.

Diabelli himself wrote the following introduction to the work which he published in 1823:

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—such a work as only Beethoven, the greatest living representative of true art—only Beethoven, and no other, can produce. The most original structures and ideas, the boldest musical idioms and harmonies are here exhausted; every pianoforte effect based on a solid technique is employed, and this work is the more interesting from the fact that it is elicited from a theme which no one would otherwise have supposed capable of a working-out of that character in which our exalted Master stands alone among his contemporaries. The splendid Fugues, Nos. 24 and 32, will astonish all friends and connoisseurs of serious style, as will Nos. 2, 6, 16, 17, 23, &c. the brilliant pianists; indeed 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 Sebastian Bach’s famous masterpiece in the same form. We are proud to have given occasion for this composition, and have, moreover, taken all possible pains with regard to the printing to combine elegance with the utmost accuracy.

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