Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, Part 1.
A supple grace note attends the upbeat to the waltz. The music expands quickly from piano to forte with pointed bass notes and a dashing sforzando at the second beat of measure 3. Portamento chords on top and that misplaced sf in the bass give us a taste of opera buffa — something off-kilter: a ballerina in galoshes. At measure 5 Beethoven starts over a step higher and copies the crescendo from the opening bars. Immediately the music speaks to an iron rhythm, basic harmonic changes and sparse melody. From measures 8 to 9 a two-note slur written across the bar line and one of those dramatic sforzandi for good measure add more physicality to the introduction even as it fades delicately to piano at the phrase’s end.
The second half of the theme (each variation is in the form of two parts and each part will be repeated) begins in the dominant of C major, the material a replica of the first section. The expressive articulations — portamento, sf, the slurs, the dots — and the rich dynamic scene make us anxious to know where the plot will lead.
Rhythm and harmony are perfectly wedded and laid out as a blueprint for the work. Beethoven might embellish later, but here he is about framework, simplicity and transparency. The key of C is explored extensively without suggesting its minor. Working within a small context, Beethoven manages to push the limits of harmony and forge a relentless rhythmic landscape. The performer should have a spine of steel in order to portray the March as it should be. But that said, there is a lingering sense of comedy from the Theme. As in comic acting, the performer who can play it straight and deliver the lines seriously may be best able to hint at the music’s irony.
The lightness and sweetness of Variation II come as a welcome relief. Eighth-note chords alternate, dance and play off each hand, the melody a suggestion at the top of each treble chord. Later, beginning at measure 21, the interest lies more in the middle voices. The highly chromatic writing leads to many quick resolutions until the ultimate one back to tonic. Intense dynamic markings run through Variation I — a long crescendo culminating in a subito p, for instance — high drama. Here the p backdrop frees up the mood and keeps things light-hearted.
Immediately noticeable are the abundance of slurs calling for legato and lyricism. Continuing in a gentle vein, Variation III lilts in 3/4, sings and climbs its way upwards in a series of overlapping voices. The bass initiates the melody at measure 16 and continues an interesting pattern at measure 20, a murmuring of eighths. Four voices make up the chords as well as flowing lines of eighth notes the performer must try to distinguish wherever possible. A crescendo beginning at measure 24 swells in the span of seven measures ending sweetly in a decrescendo to piano.
The music sprouts organically from the previous variation as if there were a bit more to say. Looking at the page, you might think Beethoven was writing for string quartet as the lines intercept and intertwine — legato embedded in every phrase. The first half of the variation begins softly and builds to forte chords in staccato just at the double bar. A new start in the bass line is an inversion of the opening measures. At measure 18 the bass in accompanimental mode affects a brief pastoral influence over the music before returning to its basic role in strict four-part harmony.
The upbeat is the message. The bass starts with two quick eighths leading to the downbeat (a dotted half note) and initiating a pattern that sustains the full 16 measures of the first section of the variation. The eighths in p emit a liveliness that energizes the variation. A crescendo at measure 12 and the doubling of time bring the music home with graceful force. The beautiful subito p in the final measures adds a quality of tenderness as well. Section B: Two impish eighth notes jump to the downbeat again, this time in E minor (relative of G, we’re not far afield). But at measure 24 Beethoven takes us through F major, D flat major and uses diminished chords as upbeats only to steer us back to C major by measure 29 and the final measures.
Variation V was energetic; VI has the engine of a Maserati. Dynamic trills in ff land on a sf downbeat and the bass apes the gesture immediately. Thus is set up a canonic feel, back and forth of the two voices. Without adding to speed Beethoven displays great power via motion, direction and the sustained use of trills. The pianist must summon all the sound she can in trilling and keep the rhythm, again, as strict as possible. The combination of rhythm, movement and sound results in firepower. Then, at measure 15, a dolce p appears as a sublime contrast and the end of the phrase releases itself like the hint of a spring breeze. The first section of the variation began at the top and flurried down in arpeggiated figures after the dramatic trills. B starts at a low G and flies up the keyboard, answered by the right hand. When the two voices merge at measure 24 a crescendo poco a poco allows the music to build steadily and climax at measure 30. But once again the air smells of honeysuckle at 31, and we are led sweetly home.
A dotted eighth and 16th lead to a release of triplets. This rhythmic pattern characterizes the opening and follows through to the end. The bass is made up of octaves, often accented with sforzandi. Dotted rhythms are innately jaunty and here they lend a dancelike quality to the variation. Triplets as well are the epitome of motion. Like characters in a novel, the variations seem to find a reason to depend less and less on the theme. The father has produced new offspring. We await each developmental stage with delight.
The tenderness of the variation is palpable — the melody in long notes, the bass coming up to meet it in eighths, sempre legato, the harmonies, major to minor, melting one into the next, producing an emotionally sweeping result. The lack of dotted rhythms, accents, sforzandi and sudden dynamics allows the music to dip, rise and flow, taking the lush harmony with it. Long crescendi-diminuendi replace subito fortes and pianos, elongating the line, allowing it to breathe.
A spartan movement, Variation IX clears the palette. Discipline dominates in the staccato two-note figures accompanied by a grace note which functions as other than a lithe embellishment from the theme. Here even the adornments are severe. The effect is of a non-frilly frill. The second half of the variation allows for more p’s and pp’s. A lengthy crescendo beginning at measure 23 emerges from a more fragile place than the ensuing sforzandi and fortissimi. Beethoven stretches dynamics in both directions so that a delicate pp feels like an oasis amid the score’s harsh colors.
Staccato octaves in the left hand spill down the keyboard accompanied by broken chords in the right, all under the marking sempre staccato and pp. At measure 17 a long crescendo begins and reaches ff at measure 30. In 32 a drop to pp occurs, with the bass notes surging up the scale in opposition to the opening. Chords replace octaves later, with equal speed and force. A grand trill in the bass accompanies the running chords to the final measure.
What emerges is a sense of exaggeration that serves the music well. Presto doesn’t merely mean play very fast, it tells you to fly off the page and take the drapes with you. Pianissimo doesn’t merely mean to play very softly but rather to search for the most tender, fragile sound that exists. Fortissimo? An aggressor army comes to mind. This music is to be played with other than a cautious heart. This Presto variation should leave the audience breathless. The jagged chords near the end of the movement should shock at some visceral level. Beethoven’s iron grasp of structure and rhythm allows him a freedom the performer is obliged to express — at either extreme.
On to Part 2.
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