Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 – Beethoven (1819-23)

Anton Diabelli (Courtesy: en.wikipedia.org)

Anton Diabelli (Courtesy: en.wikipedia.org)

Having last year again studied, with the remarkable insight available from András Schiff, all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, I have now made my way, after several attempts the last months, with interruptions due to computer collapse and interpersonal commitments, through Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Add to this a general loss of direction as one attempts to sustain a grasp of a highly integrated and sophisticated work that spans 33 variations and lasts over an hour.

In other words, one must re-adjust one’s ability to appreciate and perceive about every two minutes, all the while holding in the mind the place of the new variation in the architecture of the whole.

However, today, a day later, I remain quite pleasantly startled by my now heightened sense of what was encountered, as for years I had been unable to penetrate the work. I imagine the composer would have been content not to have told me why. Listening once again to Grigory Sokolov’s interpretation has allowed for this headway, particularly as the video provides the significant aid of having the score presented, which allows the eye to communicate what is recognized to the ear, which does not always hear, even as it listens.

Anton Kuerti (Courtesy: music.douban.com)

Anton Kuerti (Courtesy: music.douban.com)

Anton Kuerti, in his 1996 essay, places the Variations at the summit of Beethoven’s works for piano and as the equal of the final string quartets. His lucid essay explains carefully the three sources of the variations, namely, the turn with grace note at the beginning of Diabelli’s waltz, the dropping intervals of a fourth and a fifth, and the repeated chords in the right hand. The essay, along with recordings of the Beethoven sonatas and the Variations, as it happened, I purchased from the pianist himself after a concert he gave at the Banff Centre, in January of 2011.

The entire work is both monumental and extraordinary, but the concluding five variations, three expressively slow, followed by an incredible fugue in three voices, and continuing with an immaculately refined minuet, are particularly more than astonishing.

This process of discovery reminded me of Angela Hewitt’s comments that, after years of studying and playing Bach, she finally decided to come to The Art of Fugue, and found it made The Goldberg Variations child’s play. There is a remarkable satisfaction in such things that art allows us to find.

2 thoughts on “Diabelli Variations, Op. 120 – Beethoven (1819-23)

  1. Great article Hendrik. The Diabelli Variations are a mysterious work- with so many layers and moods. I love The Art of Fugue too- I never knew this work until I saw it played live a few months ago. Can you imagine that! Not knowing it til seeing it played live. It was truly magical- it was in a 19th century concert hall with chandaliers and dimmed lighting. The string players walked on stage, sat down and the lights were dimmed and those first few notes..wow..


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