Looking back on the Diabelli Variations after only five performances might seem premature. One really should take a longer break before a reflective pause. And yet, with this world of ours zipping by in streams of tweets and instant messages, a slow look can be a comfort.
I’m approaching a birthday too, and my knees buckle at the thought of it. I check my voicemails and emails for intimations of work. I glance at a gown and notice how dated it seems. Former trio members have vanished into the mists.
When a friend sent me the score to the Diabellis last year (a.k.a. Diablo or That Monster), I was most grateful. I remember the Henle Edition’s new-paper smell and its deep blue covers. I set the score on the music stand, every now and then admiring the ordered and graceful way the notes perch on the staff, like a woodcut of birds on a Japanese elm. Finally, I sight-read the score and was fatally bewitched.
A musician looking to play the Diabellis is also looking for immersion, a reason to be, an enveloping life project. Our globe is warming, numerous species face extinction, billions of dollars go down the drain, and Sarah Palin is thinking about the Oval Office. Against all this, 40 or so pages of devastating beauty.
I remember as a child wanting to immerse myself in a single art form, hoping that, at bottom, I’d discover the meaning of life. The Diabelli Variations is that kind of challenge. It asks you to look behind the notes in order to discover nuances within a strict yet vibrant framework. One never feels so alive as when coursing through the fast, pulsating variations, or so exquisitely sad in lingering among the slow, C-minor variations. The music reaffirms life.
All well and good, but I require a deadline in order to focus and was glad for the offer of a local recital. I didn’t know how it would go, but I had definite ideas and was eager to play, although I’d never traveled in public from the Theme to Variation XXXIII. I don’t exaggerate: I was starting at the mouth of the Amazon with a map and small flashlight.
Little else resonates in the soul like a first performance. It is often the best, certainly the freshest version. The act of doing, of finally making music after months of preparation is a catharsis. Looking back on the event brings a surge of a quiet joy.
[Beth’s three-part Diabelli Variations guide starts here. Her own recording appears in January on Centaur. W.M.]
[More Beth Levin]