Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven's Diabelli Variations: Early Performance History

Academic journal article The Beethoven Newsletter

Beethoven's Diabelli Variations: Early Performance History

Article excerpt

BEETHOVEN'S MONUMENTAL THIRTY-THREE VARIATIONS ON A WALTZ by Diabelli, Opus 120, is one of the greatest works ever written for the piano. But it was not until many years after it was published that it was generally accepted as a masterwork. Almost all of Beethoven's late compositions were slow to gain acceptance and public performance, but even after the last five fortepiano sonatas, including the Hammerklavier, began to appear in concerts and recitals with some frequency, more years were to pass before the Diabelli Variations was performed at all.1

The variations were first published in June 1823. Early critical reaction was for the most part negative, and even those critics who were well disposed toward Beethoven found this work a tough nut to crack. Thus, The Harmonicon in London:

"It fills forty-three pages, and is, we fear, confirmatory of the report which we reluctantly alluded to above [a review of the Sonata, Opus 111], of this great composer having, from deafness, lost some of that discriminating judgement, which he possessed in so striking a degree before his sense of hearing was impaired. We pass over several unaccountable singularities in this work, and can only allow ourselves to observe, generally, that while it manifests either an entire loss of that sense so needful to a musician, or a degree of neglect in the engraver, unparalleled and incredible, it shews that its author has not yet quite exhausted the fund of ideas, exclusively his own - upon which, for the benefit of mankind, he has been drawing nearly thirty years ...

The air itself is very pleasing, and derives additional interest from having been selected as a theme by the greatest musical genius of this century."2

The Journal für Literatur, Kunst, Luxus und Mode in Weimar called the Diabelli Variations "a treasure containing the most diverse and original invention," and found the individual variations to be "independent tone poems, springing from the theme as flowers from the ground, all betraying their common origin in spite of their charming diversity and shades of color."3 This review, however, was an exception. The foremost musical journal of the time, the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, never reviewed the work at all; neither did it review the late quartets, the Hammerklavier sonata, or the Missa solemnis.4

In the decades immediately following Beethoven's death, most writers on music could not help but be impressed by the inventive power displayed in the variations; nevertheless, the achievement of the work was often seen as more scientific than artistic. Adolf Bernhard Marx, writing in 1830 in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, of which he was co-founder and editor, noted Beethoven's skill in dissecting Diabelli's waltz - in using this "entirely well-behaved, but entirely insignificant theme" as a rich source of ideas - but ultimately found the work lacking in real inspiration ("kein Werk der Begeisterung").5 In his Ludwig van Beethoven: Leben und Schaffen, Marx compared the Diabelli Variations to Bach's The Art of Fugue, seeing each work as essentially an attempt to exhaust the possibilities of a theme. The variations were, for Marx, Beethoven's Pillars of Hercules, as the fugues were Bach's.6

Even Wilhelm von Lenz, a great admirer of Beethoven's music, hardly knew what to make of the Diabelli Variations:

"The 33 variations are unquestionably the boldest, most unusual, most extraordinary work yet attempted in the variation form, although not the most beautiful, as indeed they are more an aberration [cauchemar] of genius than its triumph. Beethoven's most beautiful variations, in our opinion, are to be found in [the second movement of] the string quartet Opus 74. "7

Hippolyte Barbedette writes in a similar vein, if a bit inaccurately, as to Diabelli's proposal:

"As for the thirty-three variations on a waltz by Diabelli (Opus 120), a work in Beethoven's third style, it is something exceptional - a kind of gauntlet thrown down to his rival composers. …

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