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The Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

March, 10 2024: Richard Goode, piano

Before I became head program annotator at the Aspen Music Festival, I had the great privilege of working closely with my predecessor, the extremely knowledgeable music historian, philosopher, and writer Kurt Oppens. In addition to becoming acquainted with thousands of his program notes and essays, I had the honor of coediting a collection of favorites (see below) that included the following note, reprinted for his substantive and insightful perspective on this beloved masterwork.

—Jane Vial Jaffe

Anton Diabelli was a businessman, a music publisher, and a minor composer in his own right; some of his piano duets for beginners are still around and occasionally taught and practiced. In 1819 he committed a waltz theme to paper, intending to use it for a publicity stunt.

This is the story as related by Thayer (1964):

Anton Diabelli, a partner in the firm of Cappi and Diabelli, invited a number of composers to contribute a variation on a waltz theme of his own for a collection to be entitled Vaterländischer Kunstverein (Patriotic Art Society). The invitations were presumably made in 1819. According to Schindler,1 Beethoven at first refused the invitation. However, by early 1819 Beethoven had made sketches for four different variations, which come just before the preliminary sketches for the “Kyrie” of the Missa solemnis.

Beethoven did his main work on the variations in 1822, and the full thirty-three variations were completed by March or April, 1823. To quote Thayer: “The Variations [Beethoven’s] were advertised as published on June 16, 1824 . . . were republished in June, 1824, as Part 1 of Diabelli’s Vaterländischer Künstlerverein,2 subtitled “Variations for the Pianoforte on a theme composed by the most select composers and virtuosi of Vienna and the R. I. Austrian State.” Part 2 consisted of 50 variations by 50 different composers.” Among these fifty were Liszt, who was twelve years old in 1823; Schubert; and the Archduke Rudolph, Beethoven’s most highly placed patron and student.

The story is interesting, because it illustrates the popularity of serious musical procedures, such as the variation. We also note a stunning incongruity of cause and effect: Diabelli’s enterprise, essentially a commercial gimmick, turning out to be the “breeding ground” for one of Beethoven’s greatest masterpieces.

Beethoven’s attitude toward Diabelli’s proposal and Diabelli’s theme was curiously ambiguous. He refused at first to participate, and he derided the theme because of its rosalias, or sequences (repetition of motives on different pitches), for which he used the popular term “Schusterfleck” (cobbler’s patch). Moving on by the way of sequences was considered to be a cheap way out for composers—how would Beethoven have reacted to the scores of Wagner and Bruckner? As time moved on, though, the theme completely obsessed and engulfed him, and this development poses two questions for us: Why did Beethoven reject the theme? Why did he later on become so profoundly involved in it?

Diabelli’s theme has been well-nigh buried under a shower of invectives since its inception. Yet it is neither banal nor vulgar nor overly simple; in fact, there is nothing at all the matter with it, which becomes quite evident whenever it is played as a waltz and not rattled off in the insane presto tempo that some pianists, influenced by the “vivace” designation, consider appropriate. But it is devoid of poetic and emotional content, and that makes it seem poor in comparison to the unbelievable metamorphoses it undergoes in Beethoven’s hands.

Beethoven’s variations also reflect a curious imbalance in the theme in regard to its harmonic progressions. Four bars of the tonic (C major) are followed by four bars of the dominant (G major), after which come several tonic-dominant (1-V) progressions (passing modulations, the rosalias) in short succession. In view of the crowding of the I-Vs starting at the ninth bar, the extended I-V at the beginning becomes an acute embarrassment to the composer. He has to supply it with sufficient interest, intentionality, and dynamism, to lead us into the modulatory part without a break, which meant covering up its basically primitive nature by all possible means. This was the difficulty, this was the challenge—and, interestingly, it was generated by the compositional process itself. Diabelli’s initial I-V progression is completely innocuous and acceptable; it became a problem only when Beethoven began to make it meaningful.

Out of this difficulty arose the most consistently maintained flow of high-intensity musical poetry ever to grace a cycle of variations. It is impossible to specify within a short space Beethoven’s unbelievable rhythmic, dramatic, lyrical, or contrapuntal exploits in this work; it is equally impossible to tell all he does with the original theme. All this would be the fit subject of a by no means small book.3 I can mention merely a few of the most obvious features of the cycle:

There are no “ornamental” variations, in the old sense of the word, to be found (i.e., variations that merely embellish the theme without changing it). Beethoven includes, however, a small number of “reductive” variations which present the theme contracted to its very essentials (in Variations 13 and 20). Counterpoint is all-pervasive; imitation and canon techniques are applied to a considerable percentage of the variations. One variation refers to and quotes Mozart’s Don Giovanni (No. 24). Some of the variations display virtuosic or etude features, others recall one or the other of the Bagatelles, op. 119. Occasionally we find them paired (one variation continues the motion of the preceding one, or it repeats a dominant feature in a different manner).

In devising the cycle, Beethoven does not seem to have followed a meticulously laid-out architectural ground plan. His scenario is dramatic in character: each variation continues where the last one left off; due to the generative power in each individual piece, we are kept breathless, in a state of permanent excitement as if we were exposed to a highly charged sequence of operatic scenes. There are, though, pauses or retardations; at these points we have to collect ourselves and make a new beginning. After the relentless piling-up of drama that precedes it, the Variation 20, an extremely slow piece consisting only of held-out chords, is a veritable test of nerves for the listener.

The cycle has a distinctly marked-out finale area, which is characterized by a general easing of tensions and intensities. No. 24 is a fughetta, No. 32 a double fugue (one of Beethoven’s greatest, i.e., most natural-sounding); the traditional contrapuntal forms have a comparatively quiet character even when they appear at their liveliest, because of their tendency toward an even flow of notes and the absence of rhythmic shocks. The thirty-first variation, Largo molto espressivo, is an ornamented paraphrase of the theme, which proceeds with leisure; obviously the heat is over. At the very end, a completely relaxed minuet leads into a “calm of mind, all passion spent” coda.

—©Kurt Oppens, Kurt Oppens on Music: Notes and Essays for the Aspen Music Festival, 1957–1955, edited by Nancy G. Thomas and Jane Vial Jaffe, 2009; first printed 1981; reprinted by permission.

1. Schindler was Beethoven’s student, famulus, and “whipping boy.”

2. Kunstverein (Society for the Arts) had changed into Künstlerverein (Society of Artists); the vaterländisch in both headings reflects the chauvinistic atmosphere in post-Napoleonic Germany and Austria.

3. Eds. William Kinderman’s 230-page nook, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, appeared in


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