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Diabelli - Variation 9

Diabelli score Var 9


Variations 9 – 11: “Turning” the ridiculous into the sublime, part one.

Up until this point, Beethoven has already had some fun at Diabelli’s expense. From the very beginning he seems almost to mock the whole enterprise by trading in the “waltz” for a march. He consistently (and insistently) draws attention to Diabelli’s little cheat (the rosalia) by utilizing ever more creative ways to move the harmony to the final phrase of each half of the variation. It’s hard not to see the humor in much of what has come so far.

With variation 9, humor gives way to satire and parody as the entire variation is built upon the almost insignificant turn at the very beginning of the theme. But while he’s having fun he nevertheless takes the time to replace the first half’s rosalia with a passage containing all three possible diminished 7th chords, and the second half’s with an enharmonic progression leading chromatically back to the tonic. Way to rub it in, Louis!

Brendel’s title for this one is Industrious nutcracker

Diabelli - Variation 10

Diabelli score Var 10


Whirling Dervish

Kinderman writes that this has “traditionally been regarded as the end of the first section of the Diabelli Variations”. This is understandable as it certainly represents an emotional pinnacle in the set. But at the same time it acts as a sort of palette cleanser between the ridiculous and the sublime variations that precede and follow it.

The descending octaves describe the falling 4ths and 5ths from the theme and the tremolos and trills lend it a frenzied urgency that continues to build right up to the end when it suddenly crashes against the brick wall of a C major chord separated from the low C – the lowest key on contemporary pianos – by six octaves.

This variation is highly reminiscent of the finale from the Sonata Op. 2 No. 3, also in C major. Was this a conscious self-quote?

Diabelli - Variation 11

Diabelli score Var 11

From the ridiculous to the sublime, part 3

This is another variation built entirely upon the turn at the very beginning of Diabelli’s waltz, but instead of parodying it with mock seriousness as in variation 9 it is now harmonized delicately in 4 parts and follows the descending 4ths and 5ths of the theme. The sequential rosalia passages are especially beautiful, with subtle enharmonic voice leading that is nothing short of astonishing. Beethoven omits the repeat of the first half.

Diabelli - Variation 12

Diabelli score Var 12

A canonic  perpetuum mobile with double 4ths in the right hand, the motivic material derived from the inverted turn and the three note rising rosalia sequence. The first half is not repeated, with the second half being written out. The repeating turn figure that occurs in the bass during second half’s the rosalia phrase is harmonized with ambiguous dominant/diminished seventh chords.

Diabelli - Variation 13

Diabelli score Var 13

More fun at Diabelli’s expense (Kinderman calls it “comic buffoonery”). The repeated chords are replaced with…nothing!

Diabelli - Variation 14

Diabelli score Var 14

This stately processional march with double-dotted rhythms could hardly be more different in emotional content than the preceding variation. In Beethoven’s original plan it would have represented the halfway point of the set. The first slow variation so far, it evokes a sense of spacious restfulness, but also of pregnant with expectations for what will follow. Von Bülow compared it to “The sublime arches of a Gothic cathedral”

From the theme, it takes the repeated chords, against which the right hand plays a figure in canon based on the inversion of the rising rosalia sequence.

Diabelli - Variation 15

Diabelli score Var 15

Composed later and inserted into the set between the processional and the two marches that follow, this scherzo-like fast march is the shortest variation in the entire set. The “melody” follows the theme very closely.

Diabelli - Variations 16 and 17

Diabelli score Var 16 - 17

These are the only two variations played together without pause. Like the past 3 variations, they continue in the manner of a march (even though variation #13 is in ¾ time, its vivace tempo and emphasis on every other measure give it a strong feeling of 2). Both feature unexpected modulations to distant keys in the second half’s rosalia section – in # 16 to Db Major and in # 17 to F# Major, as far away from the tonic C Major as is possible.

Stravinsky made comparisons between the third variation of the Op 111 piano sonata and boogie woogie, but # 16 of the Diabelli has always seemed to me the more prescient example of the left hand accompaniment popularized more than 100 years later by Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. I wonder if they ever heard the Diabelli Variations?

Diabelli Variation 18

Diabelli score Var 18

This was the first variation of the set that I learned, years before any of the others. I’ve always found it to be rather coy and enigmatic. The imitative question and answer structure in the opening phrase of each half is based upon the opening turn from the theme, starting on E instead of D, the same descending third that was a feature of Variations 7 and 8.

Diabelli - Variation 19


Diabelli score Var 19

Like a cat chasing its tail, this canon in octaves has the left hand chasing the right down the keyboard, and then the right hand chases the left back up. It is pure good humor, and follows the original harmonic structure of the theme. It has an interesting parallel in the seventh of the Eroica Variations, also a canon in octaves, which is an exact inversion of the figure used in Diabelli #19. (1-3-5 in Diabelli, 5-3-1 in Eroica). It seems reasonable to me that Beethoven would have been aware of this connection.

Eroica Variation 7:

Eroica score Var 5

This and the following variation show Beethoven at his most transparent and his most opaque, and this contrast is a prime example of the great care Beethoven took in composing the transitions between the variations. In the original sketches the two variations are in fact connected, and in this final version the canon returns to drive headlong to a non-conclusion, creating great expectations for what will follow.