The symphony is a musical epic. We might compare it to a journey leading through the boundless reaches of the external world, on and on, farther and farther. Variations also constitute a journey, but not through the external world. You recall Pascal’s pensée about how man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the infinitely small. The journey of the variation form leads to that second infinity, the infinity of internal variety concealed in all things….
Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with all its suns and stars. But he finds it unbearable to be condemned to lose the second infinity as well, the one so close, so nearly within reach….
That the external infinity escapes us we accept with equanimity; the guilt over letting the second infinity escape us follows us to the grave. While pondering the infinity of the stars, we ignore the infinity of [the one we shall lose]….
It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who…knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved—those [few] measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.