Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, Part 2.

Beth Levin

[December 2008.]

Variation XI
Allegretto, 3/4

Variation XI is immediately tender. The triplet as upbeat, reiterated in the middle voice and the bass, has a pulling effect to the downbeat made more powerful by each repetition. The poignancy is heightened at measures 8-16 by diminished chords, brief resolutions to minor and a long crescendo. Just before the double bar an arrival at G major chords, in staccato and p, recalls the gentleness of the opening. It seems that the upbeat of the theme will be transformed many times. The middle voice initiates the triplet pattern in the second half of the variation, the lines interweaving effortlessly. Again the diminished chords have the strongest pull, with the intensity of the triplets creating a stretto effect. Then by measure 26 the dynamics in p and the simple V7-I echo the beginning’s naïveté, clearing the palette for what lies ahead.

Variation XII
Un poco piu moto, 3/4

Beethoven’s tempo markings often speak to the previous variation, thus offering a sense of their relationship. He is in control of the individual events inside the variation as well as the structure as a whole, not unlike an architect who sees the building on a grand scale but considers each window and how it will reflect light and movement. Here the flowing eighth notes never cease. What begins as a single line builds to include chordal writing and intense harmonic resolutions inside long crescendi. The sudden p dolce at measure 14 is a reminder of Variation XI and its always-delicate return to the opening bars. Measure 19 intensifies with chromatic harmony and a swirling, insistent bass line arriving at forte at measure 28. The fp at 29 and long pedal point on C give the effect of a grand organ.

Variation XIII
Vivace, 3/4

Minor chords in A, dotted rhythms, martial effect: then four quarter beats of rest. The rests proving as prevalent as the notes provides a dramatic, spare and highly rhythmic quality to the variation. We could easily be in a symphonic scherzo movement, the chords somewhat imitative of strings, winds and brass. Throughout the Diabelli Variations Beethoven suggests orchestral and chamber music writing with the piano performing all roles. He knew how protean the piano can be, with its ability to express light and dark with a single touch. Dotted chords continue and weave through harmonies: V7 of V, quick suggestions of the minor, and an arrival at B-flat octaves at the double bar, a surprising how-do-you-do. Beethoven will usher us home to C major within a few measures but only through the succinctest pathways.

Variation XIV
Grave e maestoso, C (4/4)

A double-dotted eighth and two 64th notes are reminiscent of Variation XIII. But such a rhythm in grave is quite something else again. Slow and majestic, the music has an almost stubborn timing that must never waver. Sixty-fourth notes even at a slow tempo do lead to the downbeat and serve to propel the music forward. A crescendo and abrupt p from measures 2-3 are repeated in measures 4-5, this time arriving at fp, one of Beethoven’s pet markings. Forte dissolving instantly to pianowithout benefit of a decrescendo can be tricky. One must finesse the pedal to achieve the effect. Leonard Shure, who was a master at such magic, may have learned it from Artur Schnabel. The piano is capable of a suppleness amenable to Beethoven’s aims. As in the previous variations, the opening motif is intensified, voice upon voice, and longcrescendi add to the dramatic build-up. Instead of a subito piano or fp, measure 13 culminates in a true f and the same again from that point to a satisfying conclusion.

Variation XV
Presto scherzando, 2/4

What a delight! — the release of energy pent up from the slow, serious lines of Variation XIV. Sempre pp and staccato, two eighths and a quarter dance like sprites. At measure 8 quarters slow the motion under a long slur and accompanying crescendo, stretch the timing and respond to the opening scamper. We have essentially two characters, one frisky, one stern. More likely we have two sides of Beethoven’s character as he reveals himself in facets of the writing. He is nothing if not a nature in self-opposition, seeming to delight in the alarming proximity of power and tenderness, dark and light, force and its opposite.

Variation XVI
Allegro, C (4/4)

A glorious trill in the treble doubles as the melody while, from the bass, 16ths in octaves barrel up the keyboard. The dotted notes again imbue the variation with a hyper-rhythmic, martial quality even as a longcrescendo from measure 4 to the double bar creates a smoother, slurred line. The melody usually sits atop the chords, while engaging inner voices seduce our attention. The combination of trills and octaves produces a physicality that we hear in the Theme.

Variation XVII
C (4/4)

Looking at the page, one senses a kinship with Variation XVI. Throughout the work the performer finds relationships by virtue of pattern, form, harmony, melody, timing, and similar uniting factors. The running 16ths trickle down from the top now in intervals of a 6th (not octaves as before), with the dotted rhythms occurring in the bass rather than in the soprano. Turning material on its head is one way to vary the landscape without straying too far from its origins. The music most differs from its sister variation in the dynamic directions given by the composer. The upbeat forte leads to an fp and begins a pattern of extreme changes. Forte to a subito piano and back suggests distance and time, the forte portraying immediacy and the sudden pianos suggesting a far-away quality. Gone are the long crescendi that came before. The dynamics also structure the 16ths into groups which can focus and direct the line. By the final measures, the music reaches a true and lasting forte.

Variation XVIII
Poco moderato, 3/4

Beethoven writes p dolce above the opening measures where the legatowriting perfectly suits his instructions. The material is composed of snippets, fragments of legato eighth notes that imply the theme, but ever so slightly. At measure 8 a snaky line begins in unison — sopranoand bass — ascending in a winding path to a high point only to drop suddenly to p and two delicate g’s in staccato. At the double bar (which always signifies the beginning of the second half of each variation) the opening notes are mimicked, but now center around G, the dominant. As in earlier writing, the music suggests an Italian sixth, resolves from diminished chords to temporary minors, but in the end reaches its steadfast destination of C. C major as a backdrop allows for much creative straying and experimenting with a more exotic harmony: a basic black dress with touches of color and diamonds perhaps.

Variation XIX
Presto, 3/4

A quick tempo in 3/4, well-placed sforzandi and descending arpeggiated intervals provide a burst of adrenalin after the legato lines of Variation XVIII. The pp at measure 8 offers a tender moment and the crescendo at measure 12 quickly inflates and deflates by the first ending. A point of interest: the tying of eighths over the bar line at which point the opposite hand supplies the downbeat. To tie a note is to hold it but not repeat it. Here the alternating of ties first in one hand and then the other accentuates the rhythmic pulse and propels the musical line. By the second ending the figures are inverted, intervals climbing instead of falling as in the beginning of the variation. There is a visceral sense of amassing, building, descending in order to start again, reaching a climax at the top of a crescendo at measure 31. The final measures release and taper to the end.

Variation XX
Andante, 6/4

Slow, soft, prayer-like, Variation XX is an oasis. Beethoven invites us to rest, reflect and breathe. The bass begins simply, middle voices entering in turn, with the soprano far off at measure 18 after what seems like an age. Dotted half notes move peacefully, almost inertly, and the dynamics of p and pp complete the serene and expansive terrain.

Variation XXI
Allegro con Brio, C (4/4)

Beethoven breaks the spell with four opening measures of stormy trills in ff, a driving bass line and octave leaps. Meno Allegro at measure 5 cuts into the motion, however, and the pulse shifts from an energetic 4/4 to a less aggressive 3/4. The former momentum dissolves into slower, more introspective lines — slurred, legato, espressivo. Two characters emerge, one of robust desires, and the quieter sibling who pulls back in poignant two-note slurs. One thinks of Schumann and his dual portrayals in DavidsbündlertänzeCarnaval and Papillons.

The performer is challenged in expressing the wild side while timing the demure moments so that they spring naturally from one tempo to the next, or more exactly, from one emotion to the next. The variation is successful if the duality can appear as an organic, artless whole.


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