Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 Naxos 8.557384–85
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Around 1819, the music-publisher and composer Anton Diabelli invited several composers to contribute one variation to a collection based on his own waltz theme. Beethoven initially refused. Instead, he began sketching his own collection of variations based on Diabelli’s waltz. Not completed until 1823, the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120, would become Beethoven’s last large-scale composition for solo piano.
This late work poses numerous interpretive possibilities. Several scholars have attempted to describe the Diabelli Variations in terms of a transcendental journey, a testament to Beethoven’s spirituality, and how this manifests itself in his late compositional style. The notion of retrospection (and along with that, introspection) is one key to unlocking the magic behind this piece. The Variations, indeed, assume a monumental narrative structure. Much as Dante provided a guide through his Divine Comedy, so does Beethoven, but Beethoven’s guide(s) turns out not to be the theme, but rather, the musical genres and styles both from the past and the contemporaneous. One can unravel this work by tracing a carefully planned narrative of retrospection, through the use of parody and humour, imitation, and transformation of musical styles. Expressively, this retrospective approach contributes to the deeper meaning behind the work. Further, the work can be viewed in three large sections, each one more outright in its borrowing of musical styles — first, an exploration of the theme, then integration, and finally, reconciliation. The result of referencing and exploring the musical past is a composition unparalleled in its inventiveness and creativity.
From the outset, Diabelli’s theme poses an immediate compositional problem: how does one proceed from the relatively simple harmonic scheme and repetitive textures? Suffice it to say Beethoven’s solution is one of the most remarkable in musical history. In order to make a secure emotional transition between the theme and the ensuing variations, Beethoven works in narrative fashion, moving the music gradually away from the theme, and by the end of the work, transforming it into other-worldly magnificence.
To do this, Beethoven leaves the humourous theme at once and begins his music with a parodying March marked Maestoso. The time signature has changed abruptly from 3/4 to 4/4 and clearly exhibits the composer’s disdain for the “common” generator of his proceeding creations. Similarly, the second variation parodies the first while restoring the triple metre. The exploration of the theme (the goal of the first large section) begins, like many sets of technical variations, with the appearance of rhythmic diminutions. The difference here is that instead of this taking place within a few variations, the process continues methodically over the first ten. It culminates in two powerful trills in the left hand (Variation X). With the trill (the ultimate diminution), the first part of the journey is complete — exploration gives rise to integration. Interestingly, while the first ten variations explore the theme, the possibilities are far from exhausted. In fact the musical aspects explored earlier become new material for subsequent variations, variations upon variations.
Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 Review
Hats off, gentlemen, an original idea! American pianist Edmund Battersby has released not one but a pair of performances of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations: one on a modern Steinway and the other on a replica of a Graf fortepiano. Why did he do it? According to the liner notes, “Battersby's original thesis was to prove that perhaps this great work was less abstract and more instrumental than originally perceived.” What's the final effect? A pair of performances that are much more instrumental and far less abstract and very, very impressive. On either the modern Steinway or the Graf replica, Battersby is a wonderful player: brightly virtuosic and interpretively alert to the nuances of the music. On either instrument, Battersby's technique responds to each's specific qualities: the sustain of the modern Steinway or the articulation of the Graf replica, the depth of modern Steinway or the brilliance of the Graf replica. He is also anything but an abstract interpreter – the intellectual approach of Brendel or Pollini is not for him. Instead, Battersby finds the humor and the tragedy, the sorrow and the joy, the wit and wisdom, in a word, the humanity of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. While this should not be the only recording of the work one ever hears – the magisterial Schnabel, the magnificent Backhaus, the stupendous Richter, the monumental Serkin, and perhaps even the intellectual Brendel or Pollini performances are mandatory – for listeners who already know and love the work, Battersby's original idea and deeply human performance will be thoroughly appealing. Naxos' sound is better than usual, rounder, warmer, and more detailed. James Leonard – All Music Guide