As a child, Beethoven met Mozart briefly. In his early twenties he studied with Haydn for a year. When Beethoven began work on the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, he was nearly 50 years old. Haydn had been dead for a dozen years, Mozart for almost 30. Beethoven was recognized as the leading figure in Viennese music, but whereas Haydn by the time of his death was thought to be somewhat old-fashioned, Beethoven was instead operating on the very fringe of the avant-garde. The Viennese audiences may not have understood his music, perhaps resented it, but they respected the composer. So, when Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) undertook a project that he hoped would bolster his music publishing business the inclusion of Beethoven was a given.
It was Diabelli's plan to solicit from the 50 greatest composers of the Austrian empire a variation from each on a single theme from his own pen, the variations to then be collected and published. Diabelli's simple waltz was sent out to all early in 1819. The first contribution submitted to Diabelli came from Beethoven's former student Carl Czerny and was dated in May of that year. Other contributions would be made by the likes of Schubert, Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Mozart's son Wolfgang, and the young Liszt.
Early Beethoven biographers, perhaps capitalizing on the composer's reputation for having a bad temper, tell us that Beethoven was irritated by Diabelli and was offended by the crudeness of the waltz upon which he was to write this variation. As a demonstration of his mastery, however, and for a price, he offered to submit far more than a single variation. William Kinderman's research has shown that Beethoven completed some 20 variations early on in 1819 and completed the set of 33 variations in 1822-23 after concluding work on the some other late masterpieces of his career, the Missa solemnis and the last three sonatas.
Since its publication in July 1823, the 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli Op.120 has been universally regarded, along with the Goldberg Variations of Bach, to be the summit of the variation form and by many, including Alfred Brendel, to be "the greatest of all piano works."
What inspires such awe and reverence for this enormous work? Brendel, whose writings have recently been collected into a single volume, On Music, by A Cappella Books, writes:
"Despite their vast range of different emotions - serious, lyrical, mysterious and depressive, withdrawn and brilliantly extroverted - Beethoven's Diabelli Variations reveal themselves to be a humorous work in the widest possible sense."
Perhaps it is the generosity of humor and the embrace of humor, qualities we do not often associate with Beethoven, which makes this piece unique. This is not Beethoven the embattled conqueror. This is the Beethoven of universal compassion.
Attending a performance of the Diabelli Variations is not a matter of scorekeeping - ticking off the variations one after another, checkmarks in the program. We are all aware that sitting at home with a recording and attending a live performance are, of course, two entirely different experiences. However, few pieces make the contrast as dramatic as the Diabelli Variations. Our ears, and importantly and undeniably our eyes, follow the leaping stream of the individual variations, by turns dazzled by the demonstrations of virtuoso exertions and high spirits or calmed at the moments of repose. Indeed, in the concert hall, it is around these eddies that the entire work seems to coalesce.
The rambunctiousness of many of the variations, almost a jolliness, seems at odds with the image of a brooding and sullen Beethoven left to us by simplified histories - a man tortured by deafness and ill health, scowling at an uncomprehending world. In fact, Beethoven's early biographer Schindler noted the composer's "rosy mood" during the period of composition. So the jaunty initial statement of the Diabelli waltz is followed by a stentorian March in the first variation and a subsequent group of cheerful manipulations of the theme or components of the theme. Playing the game of identifying the basis of each variation quickly becomes secondary to appreciating the unprecedented variety of characters paraded for us. The 14th Variation, marked Grave e maestoso, is the first of the serene transfigurations, a resting point framed by helter-skelter racing.
The cascade of rapid variations which follows leaves us unprepared for what Brendel refers to as the "Inner Sanctum" of the entire set. Coming at the midpoint of the nearly one hour duration of the piece, the 20th variation achieves a kind of obliterating stasis - Beethoven at his most sublime and his most mysterious.
The musical equivalent of a kick in the pants restores motion in the 21st variation. Beethoven takes a shot at Diabelli in the 22nd by quoting Leporello's aria "Notte e giorno faticar" from Mozart's Don Giovanni: "Night and day I slave / For one who does not appreciate it." The three variations 29-31, all in C minor, are together a final node of reflection, the music for the first time pervaded by sadness rather than serenity.
But how to conclude? Given the overriding merriment of much of what has come before, exiting in sorrow seems impossible. Beethoven introduces a grand fugue, that domain of Bach and Handel, as a final uplifting rush leading to the restatement of the now practically forgotten waltz - rendered as an introspective minuet. After a world-embracing diversity of unequalled scope there is no other choice but to end in simplicity - a wave of the hand.
History has been unforgiving to Diabelli - commentaries about the variations always quote Beethoven's ridicule of the original theme - that "botched piece of cobbling." Diabelli himself did his legacy no favors - in announcing the publication of Beethoven's contribution he could not resist a weak attempt to steal back some of the thunder he had loosed: "We now present some variations of no ordinary kind, but a great and significant masterpiece, such a work as only Beethoven, the greatest contemporary representative of genuine art can produce … we are proud to have given occasion for this composition."
— Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.