Opus 120: The universe in a dandelion

33 Paragraphs on Beethoven’s 33 Diabelli Variations,
lecture and performance by William Kinderman. 2007 Arietta Music.

Review by William Gillespie

There seems to be a tradition in early baroque and classical music of taking another composer’s piece and rewriting it to demonstrate your superior writing, deriving masterful variations from the other composer’s weaker theme. The gesture can be flattering or insulting, a respectful tribute or machismo in a powdered wig.

We see it in its polite form in Bach’s Musical Offering, where Bach composes a clever, showy masterpiece based on a challenge and melody issued to him by Frederick II.

The antagonistic form of the phenomenon is dramatized in the movie Amadeus. When the young Mozart is invited to meet the Austrian Emperor and his court composer Salieri, Salieri has composed a march of welcome. Mozart, dissatisfied with the march, sits at the keyboard, and, without needing to consult Salieri’s sheet music, spontaneously recompose sthe piece in a way he prefers, demonstrating his superior compositional, improvisational and performance skills. Salieri is less than delighted for his work to be danced upon by Mozart’s lithe feet.

Within an instance of the musical form of theme and variations is the question of the variations’ attitudes toward the theme, whether they have a posture of reverence, disdain or simply consider the theme to be suitably plastic raw material. Pop music will use the theme as a baited hook, a foregone conclusion, wheareas the variations use the theme as a point of departure, interrogate it, question it, turn it upside down and backward.

In literature, the tradition of theme and variations is not a mainstream form, perhaps because a work of literature makes an earnest effort not to repeat itself. Examples tend to be regarded as experimental novelties. We have, for example, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947)—99 retellings of a banal anecdote—and Harry Mathews’ Trial Impressions (1977)—30 variations on a song by John Dowland. Once, in a graduate fiction workshop at ISU, I responded to a colleague’s short story (instead of writing the required critical response) by condensing it to half its original wordcount then revising it using various techniques. My gesture, while meant to be fun, was born more from a spirit of impatience than homage.

In 1819, a music publisher named Anton Diabelli asked fifty major Viennese composers of the day to write variations on a simple waltz. He hoped to publish them all together to promote his music publishing enterprise, and, according to Wikipedia, to raise money for victims of the Napoleonic wars. Beethoven at first refused, apparently unimpressed by Diabelli’s piece. Mysteriously, he changed his mind in a big way, and wrote not one but 33 variations over the course of four years, even while absorbed in writing such major works as the Missa Solemnis.

Eventually Diabelli released two volumes of variations—one comprising the contributions of the other composers, one just Beethoven. His final Diabelli Variations is now considered one of the great works for piano and one of the great examples of the theme and variations form, standing alongside Bach’s magnificent Goldberg Variations.

Beethoven was fully deaf by this point in his life (age 50) and so this was a masterwork he could hear only in his imagination.

Beethoven's handwriting.

William Kinderman is a gifted pianist, Beethoven scholar and lecturer who teaches at the University of Illinois. He authored the monograph Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987, recently reissued by Oxford University Press). His recording of the piece (made in a German castle, originally released in 1994 on Hyperion) has now been reissued by Urbana’s Arietta—a classical music label created underneath the Parasol Records umbrella. The CD package contains extensive notes from the publisher, performer and a playwright (Moisés Kaufman, author of 33 Variations), and, thrillingly, a second CD consisting of Kinderman giving a lecture explaining aspects of the history and structure of the Diabelli Variations with musical examples.

It delights me that this complex piece of music could include so much apparatus to assist the scholar and even the layman in a better understanding of its form and context. The notes from the publisher (the wonderful Geoff Merritt) are unusually casual for a classical CD, which usually tend more to the staid and uptight, and establish a friendship between Merritt and Kinderman as the basis for the rerelease. The notes from Kinderman are impeccably scholarly and informative—another variation of his book.

The lecture CD is an excellent addition to the package, on a par with any recorded lecture I have heard from the Teaching Company. It is so well-produced as to sound as if it were recorded in one smooth take in a lecture hall equipped with a concert grand. In truth it actually required a fair amount of studio magic to reconstruct the flawed recording of the lecture and to splice in the best existing samples of the music. (The “rapturous applause” noted by another reviewer was indeed aimed at Kinderman, but was lifted from another recording—not that the applause was not deserved, just that the small crowd who attended the lecture recording proved to be noisy enough that a crowd of the size heard applauding would have compromised the recording.) The lecture is well-balanced, lucid, has moments of sober wit, and is scholarly to the hilt. The embedded musical examples serve to elucidate and even make obvious aspects of the composition that would otherwise have remained obscure to me.

The accumulated effect of these extras is to situate this dense and ambiguous musical masterpiece in a web of human associations that provide multiple narrative and musicological points of entry.

The Diabelli Variations is a piece of music that may take most of us more time to listen to than it takes for the performer to play.

Each variation peels away from the cluster and spins a musical web all its own. The fragments are pompous, dreamy, haunting, bold, soothing, ominous, frolicsome, indulgent, goofy, or tear-jerkingly delicate. But the brilliant gem the variations are facets of—the entirety of the composition—bursts with vitality, discovery, intensity and a violent embrace of life’s intricacies, ironies, triumphs and despairs.

In the “cobbler’s patch” of Diabelli’s trivial waltz, Beethoven is discovering the universe in a dandelion. The CD is not something to put on if you’re feeling happy, sad, mad or any single feeling. It’s not background music, mood music or soundtrack music. It’s music to chase down and be pummeled by, to listen to to feel alive.

Hans von Bülow considers the Diabelli Variations to be a microcosm of Beethoven’s art—a showcase of techniques, including some he is not known for. To give a nonmusical example, in the Diabelli Variations Beethoven uses humor. I wouldn’t associate humor with the brooding figure Beethoven cut. But Kinderman points out clever allusions to works by Mozart or Bach, exploiting musical or semantic similarities to Diabelli’s theme. There is also a perverse sarcasm in Beethoven’s gesture of amplifying or exaggerating mundane aspects of Diabelli’s waltz—precisely those aspects he might have left behind.

Piotr Anderszewski Plays the Diabelli Variations is an excellent film by Bruno Monsaingeon comprising a performance of the piece with many well-considered camera angles choreographed to reflect movements in the music. More than a concert film, it includes a discussion of the Variations by the pianist. It’s worth seeing—the pianist’s hand motions, body language, and even facial expressions help convey the character of each variation. He takes you with him into the zone. In his discussion, Anderszewski points out that Diabelli’s theme is lacking a theme—there is no central melody to make variations of, no tune as hummable as the Goldberg aria. And, Anderszewski suggests, perhaps it was this absence of essential musical personality that at first repulsed Beethoven and then intrigued him. (I wonder whether it is possible that Diabelli’s waltz was purposefully underwritten to allow the greatest freedom to his team of composers.)

Anderszewski and Kinderman both show how tiny clusters of notes used by Diabelli as turns, ornaments or accessories are magnified into events by Beethoven, who bases entire variations on trivial, tedious or forgettable aspects of the original waltz. Anderszewski  and Kinderman both point out in different ways the compression employed by Beethoven. He moves rapidly from one idea to another with unprecedented shortcuts, or will use a particular musical element a surprising number of times in a short span.

Having a sense of Beethoven’s tactics help us approach this piece and understand his attitude toward the waltz he deconstructs.

As the Variations unfold and fields of intense and difficult music flower from the bud of Diabelli’s asinine theme, the effect is almost demented. An obsessive composer hallucinates endless musical meaning into a phrase that doesn’t have much to say. And these efforts are sometimes cut through with profound anger or sadness—a depth of feeling not present in the gay waltz that preceded them—emotions that flash across the sky and are gone as soon as they appear.

Beethoven is writing a major book about a bookend, and it’s a tragedy at that. He pushes the musical conventions of the day (and the skill of the pianist) to their limits in the powerful velocity of his expression. One of the changes Beethoven would make toward the end of the four-year composition process was to insert a few variations into the sequence that were more directly reminiscent of Diabelli’s theme in an effort to tether his Zeppelin back to the shabby launch pad it had lifted from.

What sorts of abnormal mental activity might a contemporary musical psychoanalysis reveal in this piece? Manic-depression? Obsessive-compulsion? Schizophrenia?

Still, there is nothing but method in this madness, and the gesture of turning a mood as obvious as the pomp of Diabelli’s “beer hall waltz” inside-out is important, and reveals to me more than Beethoven’s genius. Those who gather in this nineteenth century beer hall to clash steins to this flippant bit of musical fluff do so to layer over lives they cannot grasp, lives of overwhelming sadness marked by moments of sublime beauty in such quotidian visions as the glimpse of a puff of ivory cumulonimbus, a butterfly hovering over a tulip or a stag disappearing into a black forest mist. Childbirth, the vigor of youth, or the merciless mystery that transpires on a deathbed. Bach, Mozart, Napoleon, Diabelli: the inexplicable, beautiful absurdity of it all. In a time before penicillin, The Origin of Species or lightbulbs existed to cut the darkness.

Other writers put Kinderman’s performance of the piece in a small class of contenders for “best,” but this sort of comparison replaces the idea of performance as interpretation with some sort of record-setting athletic achievement. How else might one characterize Kinderman’s recording?

My impression was that Anderszewski seems to make the louds louder, the softs softer, the mellifluous languid, and the strident brash. Whereas Kinderman, by contrast, has more restraint, not overplaying the variations at the expense of the composition's entirety.

According to Kinderman himself in personal correspondence, “One extreme aspect of Anderszewski's recording for instance is the extraordinarily slow tempo he takes for the slow variations (a quality noticed with some dismay by others, by Alfred Brendel for instance). To me, this is a weakness—or stated differently, a quality that I would never seek to endorse or emulate—because in treating the slow variations in this way the flow and pacing and sense of wholeness of the entire great chain of variations is weakened or lost. In striving to convey this sense of wholeness I do indeed wish to avoid this kind of extreme rendering, though in no way do I wish to fail to convey the distinctive characters of each of the variations as well as the way they rub against one another, generating emotional tension and complexity.”

Kinderman does not condescend to the listener by exaggerating the variations’ qualities in the manner in which an American tourist might speak English to a Mexican—loud, crude and slow with childish hand-gestures. He allows the intricacies of the composition to speak for themselves.

But the point is that his performance, in its virtuosity, achieves transparency—ceases to exist, becomes a clear wineglass to capture Beethoven’s colors, flavors and aromas. I don’t hear whining (as with Glenn Gould’s historic recording of that other magnificent theme and variations for piano) or a piano bench creaking. I forget there is a pianist present at all. I hear music. With Anderszewski, I hear a pianist.

This is a work of art, after all, as vibrant today as it was almost two centuries ago, and not a technical execution of a scholarly manuscript as digitally archived by sound engineers.

I hope that Geoff Merritt’s Arietta re-release with all its notes, which I picked up in his record store Parasol (which specializes exclusively in rock music), might help this CD find an audience who can appreciate it for what it is—a unique musical experience—not just those who would worry about whether the piano was miked properly.

This is more than 88 notes, and Beethoven is more than a nineteenth century figure of interest only to quibbling historians.

Beethoven is a rock star, fire and water.

The CD may be purchased at Parasol Records, online or in Urbana.

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