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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Beethoven's Diabelli Variations

Composers often get asked to do strange things; I know conductors and music educators do. In 1819 Ludwig van Beethoven received an odd request from the Vienna-based music publisher Anton Diabelli. Diabelli wanted to publish something which could be used to raise funds for orphans and widows of the Napoleonic wars, something with broad appeal, but it needed to be unusual, and it needed some big names on board.

Anton Diabelli

What Diabelli decided to do was ask every important composer then resident in the Austrian Empire to each write one variation on a waltz that he'd composed, after which he would publish them as a single collection. This is Diabelli's waltz. It's in binary form, a form often used for dances in instrumental works. Binary form sees the music cast in two parts, each of which is repeated. The first part moves from the home key to the dominant (in this case, C major to G major) and the second part returns from the dominant back to the home key. [listen]

Beethoven was the most famous composer in the Austrian Empire and would have been at the top of Diabelli's list. The story goes that Beethoven was insulted by the request and refused; he was said to have found Diabelli's little waltz too dull and banal. But once Diabelli offered him a decent fee for an entire set of his own variations, Beethoven is supposed to have agreed to write the enormous work we now call his "Diabelli Variations".

This story derives from the very unreliable biography of Beethoven by Anton Schindler and it doesn't ring completely true. Beethoven certainly didn't contribute a one-off variation to Diabelli's original scheme, but fifty other composers did. The collection appeared in print in 1823, but along side it he printed Beethoven's own set of 33 variations, now known as the the “Diabelli” Variations, Op 120.

Stieler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1820)

As as a side note, the list of composers who contributed to the original scheme contains some fascinating names, including some very well-known ones. Archduke Rudolph of Austria - Beethoven’s pupil and friend, and dedicatee of some of Beethoven’s greatest works - was one. Carl Czerny, Franz Schubert, Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Ignaz Moscheles, all major figures in Viennese music at the time, were among the others. Simon Sechter, the famous theoretician and teacher (whose students included both Schubert and Anton Bruckner) was included, as was Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, one of the two surviving sons of Wolfgang Amadeus. Perhaps the most fascinating inclusion was a nine year old prodigy called Franz Liszt, whose involvement was arranged by his teacher, Czerny.

Beethoven's completely separate variations on Diabelli's waltz are staggering. If he really found the theme banal then there's certainly no indication of it in the final work, which takes around an hour to perform. After refusing to take part in Diabelli's original plan, Beethoven started his own set. Four variations were written in early 1819; a few months later the total had reached 23. He had interrupted work on the Missa Solemnis to write these so clearly they were somehow important to him, but by February 1820 the variations were put aside and he returned to work on the Mass, and other works.

It wasn't until early 1823, after he'd finished the Mass, that he returned to the variations. He revised and re-ordered those he'd already written and composed more, and the final piece comprising 33 variations on Diabelli's waltz was complete by April 1823.

Wigand: Vienna seen from Brigittenau at the season of the Fair (c. 1820)

Beethoven's variations avoid a lot of the predictable elements found in those submitted by Diabelli's fifty composers. What Beethoven does is utterly his own: he breaks Diabelli's theme down to its constituent parts - the opening "flick" of four notes, the descending fourth in the first bar, the harmonic scheme, and so on - and uses these as seeds for 33 completely new pieces which evolve out of them. In fact this is more a series of evolutions than variations, and even from the first variation we see that Beethoven is treading his own, unique path.

Variation one establishes Beethoven's unique approach to his task. [listen]

The second variation already seems far removed from the theme, but what is happening here is that rather than adding, Beethoven is subtracting. What can be removed without making the result unrelated to the theme? [listen]

The third variation seems more conventional, more "pretty", but it doesn't take long for Beethoven to lead us far away from where we think we might be going. [listen]

In the fourth variation Beethoven takes the slightest hint from the opening of the theme - and the theme's general harmonic pattern - and writes a completely new piece. [listen]

So far the variations have all followed the theme's original binary scheme (two halves, each of which is repeated) but in the fifth variation this starts to break down. The first half is repeated but the second is extended, without a repeat. The descending fourth and the upbeat from the theme take Beethoven in yet another evolutionary direction. [listen]

And with unfailing dramatic timing, Beethoven's next variation increases the energy levels, not to mention the virtuosity required from the pianist. The upbeat becomes a trill which is obsessed over in the midst of busy semiquaver passages. [listen]

Variation seven obsesses even more over the descending fourth and the upbeat but without a trill this time. [listen]

Variation eight calms the emotional temperature by keeping the texture simpler (long notes in the treble, moving notes in the bass) in order to explore the possibilities of the theme in another way. [listen]

The ninth variation is an excellent example of Beethoven taking one element from the theme and using it as a seed for a completely new piece. The "flick" from the start of Diabelli's waltz is heard in almost every bar of this, and Beethoven's creativity is clearly completely uninhibited. Interestingly, this is the first variation in which Beethoven changes the key. Up till now we've been in C major but here we're in C minor. [listen]

This explodes into the tenth variation, back in C major and now completely free of the binary repeats. The long, growling trills in the bass just make the scampering chords in the treble even more powerful. [listen]

Variations eleven and twelve bring us back from the cliff edge - for a moment - with more meditative reflections on the theme. Variation eleven plays with triplets...[listen]...while variation twelve meanders through the theme's harmonies - and beyond - with flowing quavers. [listen]

But with variation thirteen something seems to snap. Beethoven takes us over that cliff edge into worlds no other composer could have imagined evolving out of that little waltz. This variation breaks the theme down to its bones and incorporates an element almost no other composer would have considered: silence. [listen]

The dotted rhythm in variation thirteen leads to a dotted rhythm - but a much slower one - pervading variation fourteen. [listen]

Variation fifteen is over almost before you notice it, a scampering presto which spins even more ideas from the upbeat and the harmonic direction of the theme. [listen]

Variations sixteen and seventeen work as a pair. They are virtuoso showpieces, with variation sixteen putting masses of rapid semiquavers into the bass [listen] and variation seventeen transferring this passagework to the treble. [listen]

From this point the contrasts between variations become more and more stark, even bizarre. Those frightfully challenging variations give way to the relative calm of variation eighteen. [listen]

Variation nineteen thrusts us into a different sound world with cascading outlines of chords. In the second half Beethoven inverts this, making the chord outlines rise, all the while making it clear that Diabelli's theme is "in there somewhere". [listen]

But then, for variation twenty, Beethoven pulls the rug out from under us. It's as if he's still of the opinion that there's too much flesh on these thematic bones and that he could pare them back even more. The first two notes are the theme's descending fourth but where he goes from there is straight out of the late-Beethoven textbook. [listen]

Bizarre, confronting contrasts continue with variation twenty one. It's almost two variations in one, with each half of the binary structure covering two ideas: thumping quavers accompanying a trill in 4/4 then flowing quavers in 3/4 which move against the beat. Yet somehow Beethoven makes it all work. [listen]   WolfgangW

Graf piano owned by Beethoven, made between 1811-1818

There is a school of thought that Beethoven's Diabelli Variations were written as an expression of anger; that he was angry at even being asked by Diabelli to be seen as just one of the composers then working in Austria. There's another school of thought that Beethoven saw the project as just silly, and that in writing his own, massive set of variations on Diabelli's waltz that he was trying to send up the whole idea.

The fact that the resulting work is simply magnificent makes it hard to believe either of these notions as being Beethoven's only motivation, but there are moments when it is actually easier to believe Beethoven was sending up Diabelli's idea. Variation twenty two is one of those moments. Here, Beethoven draws attention to the fact that Diabelli's theme could be shoe-horned into the music which open's the first act of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Beethoven makes this clear by noting in the score that variation twenty two is based on Mozart's "Notte e giorno faticar", the words sung by Leporello after the overture in Don Giovanni. [listen]

That variation dispensed with the upbeat which is so crucial to Diabelli's theme, and it's as if this action liberated Beethoven's mind into being able to think even more creatively about where the waltz might take him. Variation twenty three has no upbeat and explodes in cascades of what might almost be said to describe derisive laughter at what has gone before. [listen]

And then, effecting yet another contrast, Beethoven writes a small fugue (a "fughetta") for variation twenty four. The first two notes of the fugue subject are the theme's descending fourth but from there Beethoven moves off into a world Diabelli would never have imagined possible. It's a timeless gem, a miniature of great beauty in the midst of controlled creative frenzy. [listen]

The quietly, in a fast triple time, variation twenty five starts. For the first time since we started on this incredible journey, Beethoven evokes the pulse of the waltz theme, but here the rolling bassline and punctuating chords in the treble make a very different effect. [listen]

The gentle mood remains in variation twenty six, with cascading arpeggios outlining the theme's harmonic skeleton. [listen]

Variation twenty seven is full of virtuosity and contrasting volume levels. The rhythm grows out of that of the previous variation - that much is clear on paper - but the aural effect is radically different. [listen]

In variation twenty eight Beethoven is displaying a level of creativity unprecedented in variation form. The harmonic skeleton of Diabelli's waltz underpins this variation, but melodically and rhythmically Beethoven has evolved so far as to be on a different musical planet. And he has a lot further to travel yet... [listen]

In variation twenty nine Beethoven changes key for the first time since variation nine, and here again he goes from C major into C minor. This mournful little adagio is the first of three variations in C minor, each more removed from the world of theme than the last, yet still unswervingly connected to it, however remotely.

Variation twenty nine...[listen]...leads to variation thirty...[listen]...which leads to the rather stupendous variation thirty one, one of Beethoven's great, late slow movements where all perception of time seems to stop. [listen]

And being late Beethoven we should expect a fugue, a form with which he was obsessed in his final works. The Diabelli Variations do not disappoint in this respect, with the second last variation, variation thirty two, being an enormous fugue. This is in E flat major, the relative major of C minor (the key of the preceding three variations), and a key three steps away from the home key of C major (using keys a third above or below the home key was a hallmark of Beethoven's style).

The first two notes of the fugue subject comprise a descending fourth, thus making a connection with Diabelli's waltz, but the course of the fugue itself is pure late Beethoven. If you get lost in this, you're experiencing it correctly. [listen]

Beethoven provides a gentle link into the last variation, variation thirty three. This returns to C major and is marked to be played in a moderate minuet tempo, but the variation itself is anything but a simple minuet. It's a large-scale meander through ideas inspired by aspects of Diabelli's theme. The waltz theme is hardly in evidence, but Beethoven shows that he could probably have written another 33 variations if he had the time. His creativity seems to know no bounds. [listen]

The Graben in Vienna (1800)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2013.

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