Ludwig's Copious Notes: Emily Donahue and Scott Barrow in a Workshop Production of 33 Variations at Georgetown University

Article excerpt

To the imminent obituary of the brick-and-mortar Tower Records, add another factoid: Before the chain went all-virtual, one of its stores inspired 33 Variations, the latest offering from playwright and director Moises Kaufman. About four years ago, the author of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project found himself in the classical section of the Tower near New York's Lincoln Center. He struck up a conversation with one of the salespeople, who related to him the curious tale of Ludwig van Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

In 1819, gung-ho publisher Anton Diabelli asked 50 composers to craft permutations on a waltz he had written. Beethoven reportedly declined, but then had a change of heart--and devised not one but 33 ingenious riffs on the piece. "At this moment in his life--when he was dealing with monumental epic pieces--what did he see in this little trifle of a waltz that so captured him?" Kaufman muses. "It's 32 bars of nothing!"

Intrigued, the playwright began interviewing musicologists, and eventually--after negotiating much red tape--obtained permission to view the original sketches for the Diabelli Variations. Preserved in a vault at the Beethoven-Haus, in Bonn, Germany, the manuscripts bear evocative marginalia, like the composer's shopping lists. …