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33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Opus 120

In 1819 the music publisher Anton Diabelli, attempting to generate publicity for his publishing firm, composed a waltz which he sent to 50 composers—Beethoven, Czerny, Schubert and Liszt among them—asking each to contribute one variation to a set he would publish. Initially, Beethoven wanted no part of this and refused with a dismissive remark about Diabelli’s theme.

Indeed, Diabelli’s waltz has nothing of the kind of musical appeal that characterizes most variation themes. Contrast it, for instance, with the theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Variations, or of the F Major Variations Op. 34, or the much performed C minor Variations—not to mention the Goldberg or Brahms-Handel Variations.

Perhaps this was why he refused. Perhaps he was simply offended by the idea of contributing one variation to be bundled with a large number of mostly mediocre others. Having thus rejected both Diabelli’s theme and his project, Beethoven went on to write, in the form of “33 Veränderungen” on that very theme, one of the greatest works in the entire keyboard literature. Why?

The reason is to be found in considering more closely what kind of a piece he wrote. As we shall see, this set of variations is fundamentally unlike any before or after it. Beethoven did not even entitle them “Variationen” but, uniquely in the piano literature, “Veränderungen”, best translated as “Transformations”. What then is this collection of pieces and how do they relate to the theme?

Commentators are nearly unanimous in their haughty contempt for Diabelli’s theme. Many performers, in turn, use this contempt as a tool with which to bang, batter, and otherwise abuse Diabelli’s simple, lively, and unassuming short waltz. The notion that the waltz is contemptible is held to draw support from Beethoven’s description of it as a “Schusterfleck” (usually translated as “Cobblers Patch”—?), but in fact that word’s meaning to Beethoven and correct English translation are both unclear. Far from some of the extremely pejorative meanings attributed to it, the likely intended meaning of “Schusterfleck’ is “well-crafted”—as contrasted with musically inspired—and indeed this description fits the waltz very well. Actually, played as a piece of music rather than a demonstration of some critical view, it reveals itself to be a graceful and elegant blending of a few rather neutral elements, and it is this structure which Beethoven exploits in his “Veränderunge”.

The theme uses in a naked fashion some of the most fundamental building-blocks of music. It is, in Tovey’s view, “...rich in solid musical facts”—its opening turn, its descending fourths and fifths, sequences, straightforward harmonies and harmonic rhythms, and its simple and symmetrical phrase structure. Beethoven’s process in these pieces is to take just one of those building blocks, to look at it either directly or obliquely and thus viewed, use it as the basis for one of his “variations”. These are not variations; rather they are dense, single-minded short pieces referring to musical atoms in the original theme. Because these atoms are fundamental, this process allows Beethoven to explore every facet of his compositional range. It seems that Beethoven went from looking at the waltz as a less-than-inspired theme to be varied, to regarding it as the germ of a piece which we think of as Beethoven's “The Art of Piano”.

Many listeners initially find this piece simply bewildering. Too much of what has been written about the Diabelli Variations is on an abstract conceptual level and is conspicuously lacking in anything that might focus the ears attention. Our hope in discussing this piece in some depth and detail is no more than that our comments, personal as they may sometimes be, have a specificity of reference to the music itself that may help some listeners begin their own exploration. That is all we aspire to do; not to analyze the music, still less to “explain” it, but to give those listeners who find our comments helpful a sketchy map of terrain that can really only be explored “on the ground”, by listening.

Moving from a 3/4 waltz to a 4/4 march is radical in and of itself, but the shock of Variation 1 goes beyond that. One hears, as in the theme, repeated C Major triads in the right hand, but to dramatically different effect, both in their rhythmic drive and what now seems an intransigent harmonic stasis against the dissonant march of the bass. One is immediately, brutally wrenched away from any expectation of a normal set of variations—an expectation that would have been briefly sustained had Beethoven left Variation 3 in its original place as the first variation.

Harmonically and rhythmically, Variation 1 is at every moment clear, one might say reassuring, but the reassurance vanishes when the steady rhythmic and harmonic patterns of the first half of Variation 2 break up in the middle of its second half. This is an audible foreshadowing of the complex departures from thematic roots that are to be found again and again in these variations. Variation 2 seduces you: Variation 1 is radical because of its change in tone but it remains harmonically anchored, whereas Variation 2 leads you on, quietly, with constant movement, into unforeseen chromaticism. Even the beginning of Variation 2 would seem radical—think of it in direct juxtaposition to the theme—were it not overshadowed by the shock of Variation 1, by contrast with which it might seem slight. But these first two variations, in their very different ways, both wrench us away from the theme—a process which will continue, with each variation playing its role in making possible the musical metamorphosis from Diabelli’s waltz to Beethoven’s final, sublime minuet.

Variation 3 starts as a beautiful melodic piece with fairly clear ties to the theme. For the first, but not the last time in this set of variations, Beethoven uses the second half of a variation for an excursion into what sounds like very remote musical territory. Here in Variation 3, it takes the form of four measures (#20-24) of a held chord in the right hand over a repetitive meandering bass. The harmony is made to seem enigmatic by its embodiment in the static passage. It is, in fact, a diminished seventh chord playing the role of V7/IV in the theme. Such chords have already appeared in Variations 1, 2, and the first half of Variation 3, but always in their normal musical role of fitting into the prevailing harmonic rhythm and resolving to a temporary tonic. Here, instead, the harmonic and melodic rhythm of the piece are suspended. The diminished seventh chord is given great prominence as an entity in itself. It is not resolved until it is first recapitulated in the framework of the prevailing harmonic and melodic rhythm (measure 25). We will return to the role of this chord, particularly when it reappears in a strikingly similar passage in Variation 12.

In Variation 4 Beethoven explores more contrapuntal possibilities, both in the imitative entrances at the beginning and the more extensive imitation in the second half based on an inversion of the motif. Variations 2, 3 and 4 introduce us to the myriad styles whose variety will become more extreme and intense as these variations progress. They are also the first instance of variations that serve as a kind of interlude, providing relief from variations strongly devoted to the tonic-dominant relationship which is perhaps the most prominent feature of this entire set of variations.

Indeed, tonic-dominant is the clear import of the first measures of Variation 5. The strong I-V beginning of Variation 5, however, is again an example of Beethoven seducing with the impression of simplicity and then—What are we doing in e minor?! The second half moves from there to a succession of strong cadential statements, prominently including one which resolves to the Neapolitan Sixth [N6] in root position.

Suddenly, in Variation 6, the opening turn of the theme, omitted in Variations 1, 2 and 5, and put to graceful thematic use in Variations 3 and 4, reappears—not graceful here, but a powerful presence in the form of a dissonant trill on B against C Major arpeggiation. It is the first variation with explosive virtuosic energy. 

The rhythmic energy of Variation 7 is introduced with the greatest simplicity: an elaboration of a C Major triad, moving predictably to the dominant. There follows a prominent bass line whose sequential nature is a clear reference to the correspondingly placed bass sequence in the theme. Then comes the second half, sounding as though it had lost contact with any solid harmonic ground. In fact, the harmonic progression accurately follows that of the second half of the theme, but with dominant seventh chords consistently replaced by diminished seventh chords. The rhythm of the bass, echoing the first half, suggests successive V/I resolutions, but that expectation is undermined by jumps of tritones rather than perfect fourths and by landing on the third rather than the root of the temporary tonic. With these means Beethoven achieves a paradox: he makes of a sequence of secondary vii/I resolutions a passage that seems, in the midst of a piece replete with the strongest expressions of the V/I relationship, to depart to a realm far from that relationship.

Variation 8, beautiful and calming after Variation 7, drops the connection to the theme of a strong tonic-to-dominant progression in the first half. Instead, its connection to the theme is the persistent use of half steps (B C, C# D, and in the second half, F# G) occurring at places that correspond to the half step turns and grace notes in the theme. But Beethoven transmutes Diabelli's perfectly conventional turns and grace notes into a beautifully flowing melodic bass line.

In extreme contrast, Variation 9 turns to C minor and uses the same turn motif to hit us over the head. The second half is noteworthy for its long excursion into the harmonic region of N6. The transition from the Neapolitan back to the tonic is embodied in the only moment of lyricism in this variation. There follows a prominent four-fold sounding of a held Db in the bass, though twice in enharmonic form and no longer serving as the root of the N6 chord.

Variation 10, like Variation 6 before it, is a virtuosic explosion of energy rejoicing in I and V. In Variation 10, the themes repeated notes are transformed by the energy level into tremolos, then trills. The opening figure of the waltz, with its appoggiatura accent, is transformed in Variation 11 into a lilting four-note figure which provides the sole thematic material for this simple, elegant variation.

Variation 12, like 11 a turn based variation, is striking for the reappearance of a static bass figure and seemingly enigmatic harmony in the second half, as in Variation 3. In measures 20-24 the sinuous bass touches again and again on Db. The harmony under the first right hand chord could be taken as V7/IV as in the theme—but owing to the prominence of the Db is perhaps heard more as vii7/IV, the chord given such prominence in Variation 3, though in a different inversion. Having often replaced dominant seventh chords with diminished seventh chords (up to this point also in Variations 1, 2, 4, 7 and 10) Beethoven here blurs the distinction between these two chords by putting the alternative harmonic notes C and Db in equally rhythmically weak positions, leaving the strong beats to a non-harmonic B.

The structural role of this strange sounding passage and its earlier counterpart is clear. They both give extreme emphasis to vii7/IV, which is so near and yet so far from the themes V7/IV and, with that interplay of near and far, introduce the remote Db in preparation for the major role which it plays in this C Major piece. Db is the root of the N6 chord in C major. The distinctive color of this chord and its attendant harmonies has already been heard in Variations 5 and 9, and will become very prominent in many later variations. Variation 13...Silences which have a stronger rhythmic propulsion than the corresponding repeated chords of the theme. A backwards deceptive cadence gives the impression, with powerful chords, of a beginning in A minor. At Variation 13, Beethoven can still startle as powerfully as he did in Variation 1.

Variation 14 starts off with a demonstration of the tension inherent in the relationship between tonic and dominant, the foundation of tonal harmony. The need to arrive at the dominant here becomes almost unbearable. The slowest variation by far to this point, it begins with a drastic elongation of time that is paradoxically filled with forward moving tension. The entire variation is built harmonically on virtually nothing but a succession of dominant sevenths resolving to other dominant sevenths in increasing harmonic rhythm.

Variation 15 breaks the spell, going to another extreme—abrupt, fleeting, too fast to ponder, and oddly devoid of forward moving tension.

Variations 16 and 17 break loose into a world of jubilant virtuosity with trills, broken octaves, and jazzy syncopation, ending in a fermata, much needed by both performer and listener. It is the first indicated pause in the headlong progression of these variations.

Pause is stretched into repose in Variation 18. Both the downbeat and the sense of 3/4 meter is obscured by the phrase structure and elusive harmonic rhythm.

Variation 19 explodes with renewed energy, a clear harmonic rhythm and a downbeat obscured by the rhythmically clashing canonic writing between the two hands. This explosion of energy rushes unabated straight into . . ..Variation 20!

Here time stands still; and yet it doesn't.

The Diabelli Variations form a baffling set, even in the context of great familiarity with Beethoven's music; this is reflected in the amount of commentary it has elicited and the extent to which that commentary invokes extra-musical considerations in an attempt at understanding. I well remember my own ambivalence towards this piece when I first heard it, an ambivalence which was transmuted when I heard Variation 20 into the conviction that I had missed the point. Something entirely deeper than anything I had perceived must have been going on to make it possible to arrive at this chromatic, dissonant, probing, and utterly shocking place; I knew then that I had to learn this piece.

The unadorned juxtaposition of remote harmonies in this variation is perhaps as blatant a manifestation of sheer unexplainable genius as we are likely to find. (We are aware that deconstructing genius is the favorite academic pastime of our age, but we stand by that statement.)

Variation 20 begins with reference to what remains of the theme when everything melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, has been stripped from it: C# G. The remoteness of its other references to the theme is exemplified in measures 9 through 12, a passage whose relationship to the theme consists only in symbolic representation of the themes measures 9 through 12.

Time stands still; and yet it doesn't, because the stillness draws into itself the spirit—rhythmic, harmonic, thematic—of all the previous music, and so the listener is hearing something completely new that nevertheless allows—evokes—the simultaneous presence and energy of everything heard thus far.

Variation 21 starts with an explosion of pure, crude energy. The first phrase is so elemental that for the first time in these variations Beethoven switches at the end of it to a tempo change for strongly contrasting material. The juxtaposition with Variation 20 is the most startling and radical in a piece full of startling, radical juxtapositions.

The reference to Mozart in Variation 22 has already been responsible for the death of enough trees. There are much more musically important aspects of this variation which have escaped notice. This again is a variation in which the second half is more readily heard as a variation of its first half than in relation to the theme. The quick upward roll that is introduced to span the interval of a fourth, and then a fifth, becomes the principal musical element of the second half. But the second half is also noteworthy harmonically. Suddenly we are in Ab (V of the Neapolitan). Next by an enharmonic sleight of hand, Ab = G#, we are in E Major. Again eschewing a standard modulatory path, he returns to C Major.

The virtuosic Beethoven appears again in Variation 23, leading to another of the drastic but utterly convincing juxtapositions in which these variations abound—to the Fughetta, Variation 24.

Moving and reverent in tone through its introspection and simplicity, the fughetta has neither harmonically nor rhythmically the overt complexity of many of the previous variations. It is unrelentingly fervent; unlike Beethoven fugues, the fughetta does not build in dramatic tension, but rather speaks steadily through the una corda veil.

Variation 25 returns to the dance-like simplicity of the theme. Now the repeated right hand chords appear only on the upbeat and downbeat of the triple time, enhancing its dance-like character, making it more dance-like than the theme. Meanwhile, the left hand weaves an uninterrupted melodic filigree built on allusion to the turns and grace notes of the theme. The life and grace of this variation is in the leggiero left hand; the right hand provides rhythmic accent.

In Variation 26 the rhythmic impulse is gone, the bar lines seem to disappear: we are left to ponder the beauty of a C Major triad, reaching upward as it traverses the keyboard.

Variation 27 uses structural elements remarkably similar to Variation 26 toward remarkably dissimilar ends. The serenity is gone, instead the upward reaching pure triads of Variation 26 are changed to triplets, each incorporating a dissonance in the form of a theme related appoggiatura. Instead of the three-note figures floating through bar-lines, across the piano, the left hand here establishes a clear upbeat-downbeat. The similar-looking contrary motion figures that appear in the second part of each half of both Variations 26 and 27 are also used to very different ends. In Variation 26 they produce a richness of sonority whereas in Variation 27, the thinner lines and faster tempo produce not aural richness but a frenzied scattering of sound.

Variation 28 is a relentless series of appoggiatura chords or their ghosts, simple octave appoggiaturas: diminished seventh chords, all involving minor seconds and constituting an endless succession of tension-resolution progressions.

Variation 29, coming after the frenzy of Variation 28, presents a contrast that is extreme even by the standards of this collection of extreme contrasts. In mood, in key, in the absence of an upbeat and a “repeat”, it combines features which heretofore have occurred rarely and only singly. But in fact, the transition to Variation 29 is not just another abrupt transition in a piece replete with abrupt transitions. It heralds the more integrated closing section of the entire piece.

If, as we said, these variations are Beethoven's “The Art of Piano”, the preceding variations have leaped wildly from one aspect of that art to another; the remaining pieces instead seem welded, each to the next. The evanescence of many of the previous variations is gone. These last variations, deep and wonderful, are least of all concerned with the legacies of other composers, but rather lead us to the heart of Beethoven's third-period style.

The voice of these three C minor variations—Variations 29, 30, 31—is subdued. The markings are mezza voce, una corda (otherwise used only in the fughetta) and sotto voce. Uniquely in this set of variations, to examine these three for connections to the theme is an academic exercise, though they are certainly not lacking in audible connections to previous variations or to each other. They share an undercurrent of struggle which reaches its greatest intensity in the improvisatory searching of the Largo.

The fugue opens with a jubilant arrival at the new key of Eb Major, its spirit akin to the Gloria of the Missa Solemnis. It is nonetheless completely a late Beethoven fugue, characteristically arriving at an enormous climax in the middle, after which the fugue is re-invented. It then rapidly increases in density and concentration to such an extreme that the fugue disintegrates, mid-statement, into a wild improvisatory arpeggiation: a diminished seventh chord over an Eb pedal whose completely conventional resolution to Eb becomes the beginning of a truly miraculous sleight of hand out of which emerges the opening C Major of Variation 33. From the impending chaos of the fugue, C Major is born anew.

The effect is unmistakably reminiscent of the catharsis felt at the close of Greek tragedy. This is also the rebirth of the dance, but a dance that is no longer really a dance. Paradoxically, the very reappearance of a dance-like nature and 3/4 time here serve the end of putting this variation into a musical realm further removed from the initial waltz than anything that has come before. Though one has experienced all the stages in this metamorphosis, the process seems fully as miraculous as the change from caterpillar to buttery.

But from the metamorphosed dance there arises still something else. The dramatic conflict between tonic and dominant, which has animated this whole piece, is now transcended. This occurs when a short coda following the repetition of the second section is revealed as a bridge to a rapturous exploration of piano range and sound, leading in turn to a section of a sublime and utterly transparent simplicity that puts it among some of the greatest pinnacles of late Beethoven music.

The similarity of impulse between the second movement of Op. 111 and this closing section is unmistakable, and in the closing, there is even a shared melodic figure. We arrive diminuendo with no real cadence at the final pianissimo C Major triad. Final, except for one more C Major chord. Forte, on the second beat. The “E” doubled serving as the topmost note, replacing finality with a joyous, timeless hope.

Eleanor Perrone & Peter Schweitzer