Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Ludwig van Beethoven

In 1819, the music publisher Anton Diabelli decided to raise money for the family members of soldiers killed in recent wars. He wrote a theme in hopes of inducing some of the leading composers of the day to contribute variations, planning to publish the entire set . In all, he sent his melody to 51 composers in Austria, one of whom was Beethoven (another was Schubert). Beethoven's initial inclination was to turn down the project, though eventually he submitted a variation. But the composer soon became intrigued at the prospect of writing a larger set of variations on Diabelli's theme. In the end, he turned out a nearly hour-long work with more variations than any other of his works in the form. This composition makes a worthy companion piece for Bach's mighty Goldberg Variations.

Diabelli's theme is lively and rather simple, and while many have derided it as bland and even stupid, it does have a rather naive charm, with its little turns and its rhythmic drive. This was just the kind of simple theme that had inspired the composer's variation thinking in the past. One example is Beethoven's Seven Variations on "Kind, willst du schlafen," WoO 75, from 1799. He seemed to regard such weak or trite melodic creations as skeletal outlines whose notes begged to be infused with personality and color.

There are several key features to the method Beethoven used in fashioning the Diabelli Variations. For one thing, he tended to retain in each variation some aspect of the previous one. Some have argued that each item is arranged almost randomly, that they could be reordered to make the work more effective. Yet one finds both delightful commentaries on the variation just gone by and an overarching structure to the whole set. The first variation, marked Alla Marcia, is a deliberately pompous and parodistic take on the theme. It is in a slow tempo; the succeeding variations, with a mixture of fast and slow, gradually work toward a climactic release reached in Variation 10. After that, the music relaxes for a time. Other patterns of peaks and valleys are discernible, with the greatest of the climactic episodes occurring with the fugue near the end of the work.

The work's final moments share, in Joseph Kerman's words, the "visionary aura" of the variations that concude the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor. Other noteworthy variations include No. 14, marked Grave e maestoso, a most profound entry and one of the longest, lasting around four minutes. Both Variations 23 and 24 are powerful panels, too, the former a brilliant, energetic creation and the latter divulging a somewhat Bach-like character. Several times Beethoven explores chromatic harmonies that seem far beyond even Schubert's prescient works of the 1820s.

For all its inspired artistry the work has typically proven difficult for listeners. Like the "Hammerklavier" Sonata, No. 29, it is both long and extremely concentrated. Some publishers and pianists have tampered with the score in an effort to make it more listenable, but their efforts tend to weaken what is a somewhat intellectual masterpiece.

This work was first published in 1823 in Vienna, bearing a dedication to Antonie Brentano (sometimes believed to be the "Immortal Beloved" of an earlier phase of the composer's life). A typical performance of this composition lasts about 50 to 58 minutes.