Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, Part 3.
A sparkling quote from Mozart’s Don Giovanni opens the variation — no more than a taste, an amuse-bouche. Perhaps Beethoven is suggesting that Diabelli stole his theme from Mozart or is simply being a scamp. He may also be complaining about his own labors, having had to toil night and day. The long crescendo beginning at measure 9 from pp to ff is common to many of the variations.
Rhythmic underpinnings must be made of iron in order to support the 16ths that fly by at so dangerous a speed. The opening C major chord marked fp operates as a powerful catalyst enabling the flow. An elongated crescendo beginning at measure 5 is, again, a dynamic mark of the variations. The diminished chord opening the second half heightens the intensity, and at measure 13 jagged chords emerge from the running 16ths. The already-driving motion hurtles to the end. The pianist’s technique and emotional palette may be pushed to its limit in this exhilarating romp.
A divine and simple theme starts things off. I can’t explain why a melody composed of C falling to G – E, F, D, E should seem so heavenly. I should have answers at the ready, but don’t. I’m discovering the Diabelli Variations along with you, dear reader.
Una corda, sempre legato writes Beethoven. The soft pedal imbues all with a fugitive sound. Sempre legato is so fitting to the long flowing lines. The pianist begins to feel that she is playing with a stringed instrument’s bow.
Gentle eighth notes extend the theme and by measure 8 the intermingling of voices intensifies. Luscious minor trills in the bass, fragments of 16ths and harmonic richness enliven the fugal writing without indulging in unnecessary fussiness.
The tempo Andante can be interpreted loosely, I think. After the mad dash of Variation XXIII, taking one’s time may not be a bad idea, measure by steadfast measure.
3/8 time and leggiermente only partially define the variation. The rhythmic pulse of 16th-note turns in the bass against marked chords in the treble creates a bumptious character. The theme itself has its amusing side, and here again an exaggerated pulse plays on one’s sense of humor. The performer mustn’t shy away from these light-hearted moments.
While the variation begins and ends in C major, the harmony weaves exotically through A minor, F minor, A flat major, as if in harmonic kinship with V7 of V.
Graceful arpeggio fragments in 3/8 descend like feathers in a breeze, to begin again in the dominant key of G. At measure 9 the melody appears in thirds as if in scalar steps, with intensified harmonies. Subito piano at measure 15 recalls the peaceful opening.
The second half mirrors the first, but this time the fragments ascend the keyboard, intensifying via thirds and scalar writing, culminating again in a crescendo/subito piano. Beethoven enjoys the long crescendo’s effect followed by a sweet and sudden resolution, the music having boiled over, thence to “Nothing happened, rest easy.”
The manic side of the variation we just departed returns. The prevalence of sf markings adds punch and energy, despite similarities to its peaceful brother on the opposite page. Subito f’s and p’s abound, exaggerating the triple meter. The crescendo at measure 8 unexpectedly ebbs gradually to piano via decrescendo.
The dissonances at measures 18-20 and at measures 22-24 are further emphasized by sforzandi. As they dart by they cannot be missed. B played against C sharp and G against A amidst otherwise tonal writing can feel like stings — quick and raw.
Its upbeat, so important to the original theme, is accented here with sf. Each group of two notes, while not slurred as such, gives the impression of pairs because of the sf on each first note. The variation, thus laid out, will reinforce the rhythmic will that Beethoven imposes throughout. The foundation underlying each variation is so utterly forceful that the melodic material seems to perch, as if an eagle, atop the massive structure.
At measure 16 octaves take over, and the accented duples dance ever more wildly. The back and forth of p/f p/f seem like dramatic characters in dialog. Once again, a tender closing relieves the tension.
Beethoven’s instruction to the performer consists of p and mezza voce. Written in C minor, the variation strikes a melancholy posture. A mere 12 measures long, with its languid tempo and the repetition of an eighth and 32nd figure that permeates the variation, the writing has a timeless feel. The chords as accompaniment move to the treble in measure 7, with the quicker figure to be found in the bass line.
Beethoven’s way of working his material — whether turning it on its head, repeating moments in both halves, manipulating shapes — creates a quite perfect balance and sense of flow, never predictable, yet elegant and satisfying on so many levels.
Sempre legato provides a clue to this variation’s character. Continuing in C minor, strands of liquid eighth notes travel in fugue-like voices, suggestive of string-quartet writing. If the performer thinks in terms of violins, viola and cello, she is close to the music’s heart and soul.
Measure 7 is the climax of the first phrase, part of a 12-measure first half. The second half of the beautifully lopsided variation is composed of four measures only. Legato octaves make short hairpin gestures — a burst of sound, a quick fall — with, finally, rich chords in eighths carrying us to the close.
Words cannot do this variation justice. How does one write about something so beautiful, so deeply felt, so sublime? And in C minor!
Tutte le corde, sotto voce. Everything transpires in a mysterious mist. Largo is taken literally: The 16ths are truly slow, with the eighth notes in 9/8 as if marching towards eternity. Long lines of melody, often in groups of 64th notes, weave, ascend, fall. The dynamics that shape them create their context.
Measure 7 after the double bar begins in E flat Major and explores that key until measure 11 when C minor takes hold again. E flat will become the key of the fugue in Variation XXXII, of which this is our first taste.
Espressivo at measure 9 may represent the variation’s inner yearning. The melodic trills at measure 11 followed by subito piano in the same measure are a crucial moment at which the writing tries to express more, perhaps, than can be grasped. The chromatic string of 64ths at measure 8 reminds one of lace, with delicate trills and grace notes peppering the page like images of butterflies. The fermata at the final measure needs to be heeded.
After the held fermata, Variation XXXII can really fly out of the gate. The theme in quarter notes is expressed in cut time and thus one feels the measure more in two than in four. Two-note slurs in measures 3 and 4 add lilt and expressiveness to the thematic material. Beethoven may simply be setting up a difficult challenge for himself by redeploying his line of repeated eighths from the original theme. As we know, Beethoven can create a symphonic gesture from a single note.
By measure 7 the bass line has the theme, and a fully fledged fugue is aloft. It may take a brilliant detective to find every clue to the theme’s entrances and exits. I’m attracted by other issues, mainly the forward thrust and driving force of the quarter notes that never ease up.
Beethoven varies the theme with inversions and stretto. Throughout these variations Beethoven has taken upward-surging lines and sent them plunging, increasing or holding up the harmonic rhythm with dynamics as a structural device.
After a fermata at measure 117, eighth notes enter the mix, providing motion and flexibility, as embellishing the quarter notes they surround. A long stretch in sempre p blossoms to sempre ff by measure 146. The huge and diminished arpeggio at 160 signals a climactic moment which ignites the heavenly transition at 161 marked Poco Adagio.
These six measures of transition leading up to Variation XXXIII transfix the music. Measure 101: A diminished chord in ff, held for four beats, is tied over the bar line, resolving to two chords composed of E flat, G, B flat. Measure 103 is a stunner: E flat, G, C flat in p tied over once again and resolving to E flat, G, G flat in piu piano. Measure 105: D sharp, G, B natural in pp tied over the bar line and resolving to E, G, G, all naturals at measure 106.
This eerie and succinct progression of notes creates the transition to C major and the final variation. One times the chords with an acute sense of their underlying rhythm, the voicing of subtle chromatic changes and firm grip on dynamics all working to achieve a whisper from another dimension. Beethoven gives us the material. It is the performer who must express the magic by way of what haunts these musical lines.
In other words, “but no dragging.” Even if the original theme has a hint of the vaudevillian about it, the movement as a whole epitomizes serenity and charm: a minuet dancing with grace notes, two-note slurs in octaves, balletic leaps, and always that flow of 16ths…. The pleasures are palpable.
Measure 34 is naïve, childlike and ecstatic — 32nds in pp supported by staccato eighths in the bass, dispelling the darkness. Measure 42 signals the end of the work with a slowing of the pulse, the 64th-note turns looking towards the final measures. A long scale emanating from the bass travels from diminuendo to pp. A forte chord signals the end.
[Schnabel’s 1937 Diabelli gets Beethoven whole — gruff, humorous, sarcastic, triumphant. A little-heard Leonard Shure recording is similarly titanic. Rudolf Serkin was strongly identified with the piece; the 1957 studio taping shows his ascetic angle in sharpest outline, but concerts from 1954 and 1969 add to the picture. For those in need of a pianist-professor, Brendel’s point-making amounts to an unspoken guide and William Kinderman includes a tutorial disc based on his Diabelli book. A more Romantic option is Arrau’s 1985 Philips (at 82!), but that’s in a 14-disc brick. W.M.]
Back to Part 2.
[More Beth Levin]