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The following academic article is written for those who would like to know more about Beethoven's great master piano variation, the Diabelli Variations, op. 120. Students who are preparing for the LMusTCL Trinity Diplomatic Examination 2017 syllabus will also be interested in this set piece. While preparing for the lessons, I, as a musicologist and music theorist, always feel that formalistic analysis is too dry, too boring, and insufficient for one to understand the whole piece. Although there are many articles discussing this lengthy work, many of them just focus on the topic of structure and coherence. Based on a reference Chinese music book, I would like to elaborate the points a little further, albeit brief, aiming to offer a new direction for reading and understanding of this set piece, hopefully to help those, who like and need to understand Beethoven's work more.
The Interpretation of
Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations
Based on the
Studies of Beethoven Diabelli Variations and Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor.
From 1782 when the nine variations were firstly written for the piano
movement in Nine Variations on a MarchbyDressler woo.63 onward, Beethoven seemed to be fond of using
variations, a conventional compositional practice, for his compositions until
his last string quartet op.135 in 1826. In fact, throughout his life long
career, Beethoven has composed various genres of instrumental work including
Theme-and-Variations, and lengthy compositions of more than sixty pieces with
variation movements. These works include symphony, piano sonata and string
quartet, such as Sonata op.26, op.109, op.111, Symphony no. 9 in D minor, and
the late quartets op.127, op.131, op.132 and op.135. Even in Beethoven’s late style works,
the last six string quartets in particular, never fails to reflect his profound
nostalgia on the fading classical beauty and elegance exhibiting in the form of variation for some movements. Unlike those variation movements in a multi-movements piece, the Diabelli Variations op.120, is Beethoven’s last entire large-scale Theme-and-Variations
written for solo piano.
In Beethoven’s early compositional career before 1799, he has
already composed twelve pieces of Theme-and-Variations for solo piano. During
this period, Beethoven favored to employ popular tunes, such as an aria of the
current opera, as the main theme, and varied it in a free quasi-improvisatory
way, aiming to display his technical skills and compositional talents. This is
a common performance practice in the classical period, since composers did not
possess independent financial sources other than patronized support. They
needed to display their music capabilities in the court gatherings or salon
concerts, in order to attract commissions or careers from the aristocratic
circle. Playing brilliant variations on the keyboard based on the given theme
became an “examination” for the musicians in the classical period.
After 1800, Beethoven began to write his own theme for variations. This
demonstrates that Beethoven no longer treated variation as just a game of
courtly entertainment or a prerequisite of one’s prospect, but an artistic
expression of a real gifted artist. Six Variations
in F Major op.34 and Eroica Variations
in Eb Major op.35 for piano solo written in this period are exemplar of
Beethoven’s stylistic change. He even put his own heroic “portrait” in these works,
expressing none of the structural order of the classicism, but reflecting his
imaginative ideas and romantic emotions through every nuance of the sonic
picture. Hence, the achievement of these two sets of piano variations are
claimed to be parallel with his remarkable middle-period symphonic works, which
marked Beethoven to be one of the greatest masters in the music history.
Beethoven’s own idiosyncratic “Oedipus Rex” on the Baroque elegance came
from his Thirty-Two Variations in C minor
woo.80 written in 1806. He employed chaconne, an almost outmoded Baroque stylistic
dance, as the main form for the Cm Variations. The entire work is developed
from the ostinato recurring in the bass. Each variation, being created with
different melodic lines, aims to constitute a complex contrapuntal fabric,
which never fails to exhibit Beethoven’s audacity and inventiveness. If one
claims that it was Beethoven’s deafness to move him relying on writing
contrapuntally, this would only overlook the significance of Baroque polyphonic
beauty and Beethoven’s own nostalgic passion on the conventional counterpoint. Thirty-two
variations in Cm woo.80, thus, is regarded as the forerunner of the great piano
variation composition, Diabelli, appearing
a few years later.
Beethoven’s DiabelliVariations op.120 was composed between a rather long period of five years from
1819 to 1823. Hence, there is no surprise that the work is pervaded with late Beethovean
compositional style. In Beethoven’s later life after he had experienced a series of
pains and sufferings, he valued spiritual sublimity in lieu of the superficial
formalistic shackle by means of his several master works such as Missa Solemnis, Piano Sonata op. 109,
op.110 and op.111. Through his music, Beethoven attained a level that reflects his
profound understanding of the natural human desire – longing for approaching
God – was lofty transcended. The DiabelliVariation op. 120 can be regarded as such music. When the time this Variation
was composed, Beethoven’s tragic life reached the zenith. He was almost deaf.
He was fiercely sick. He was fully exhausted because of the notoriety of his
adopted son, Carl, his ex-nephew. But even being faced with the most serious adversity,
Beethoven the composer never lost the jewel in his crown. His late style music showed
that he was unrestrained from the outer bondage of the imposed formalism, stepping
into a more inner, imaginative world of spiritual realm. DiabelliVariations is such a musical work that not only did
Beethoven crystallize the Classical tribute, but he also created a Romantic
legacy for the future coming generations. In this work, Beethoven ingenuously
incorporated a dualistic style that is a well blending composite of classical
melodic eloquence and Baroque contrapuntal beauty, but at the same time, not
losing the multifarious Romantic colors. Therefore, it is no surprise
that Beethoven music can be regarded as “circum-polar”, according to the
renowned musicologist, Carl Dahlhaus. Tovey, another well-known English music
commentator, also asserted that “Beethoven’s Diabelli is an unprecedented piano work, which can be said as one of
the greatest theme-and-variation compositions that will remain influential for
many later coming eras.”
The various variation techniques employed in the Diabelli are discussed as follows:
The use of “turn”
figure aims to embellish the thematic melody can express the tender and
delicate characters of Beethoven’s individual compositional style. Such melodic
figuration often permeates an aura of classical grace, elegance and eloquence
to audience. Typical examples of such variations can be found in no. 3, 4, 11, 12,
18, 21 and the coda.
favors to employ such compositional devices to display his passionate fury, at
times parodic, and at the other times, seriously designed.
of using these devices are as follows:
i. Trill figure:
Variation no. 6, 16, 21
Variation no. 6, 7, 19, 25
Scalar Passage: Variation no. 10, 22, 23, 27, 31 and 32.
c.Short fragmented motive and Cantabile melody:
unique compositional skill is to cut off a detached, short motive from the main
theme to developing the whole piece. The advantage of a short motive is its impressive
and catchy nature. One example can be found in Variation no. 9.
also likes to create a singable, lyrical melody because of its catchy and
memorable nature, in order to form part of the variation. No matter the variation is
based on a short, decisive motive or a lengthy cantabile melody, Beethoven
displays it in a catchy solo, or elaborates it with independent contrapuntal lines,
constituting a sonic fabric. Examples are found in Variation no. 3, 4, 11, 12.
d.Newly created Melody:
an inventive composer, never forgets to create something new and fresh for his
compositions, even for the theme and variations. As such, there is no surprise
that Beethoven creates new melodic themes and motives for his Diabelli Variations, sustaining the
fresh, impressive characters of the music. Examples are no. 8, 12, 18, 27, 30
1.Skillful rhythmic complex:
complex aims to expand a wide range of rhythmic patterns to each variation.
a.Use of rests to disrupt the natural flowing of the melodic line, so
as to create an unusual rhythmic pattern, for example, Variation no. 13, and
b.Use of irregular accents to disrupt the natural flowing of the
melodic line, so as to create a fresh musical motion, for example, Variation
no. 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, 27 28, 32 and the coda.
2.Change of rhythmic patterns:
of rapid change of rhythmic pattern is for the purpose of adding dramatic and coloristic
effects to the variations, as well as creating a shift of meters or metrical
accents of the music structure.
a.Use of hemiola, (beating in 3 against 2 or vice versa), to create a
shift of meter from duple to triple time or vice versa, for instance, Variation
b.Create syncopation with tie notes across bar line to create an
effect of sluggish motion, disrupting the regular rhythmic flowing, for
instance, Variation no. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 15, 19, and the coda.
c.Use syncopated rhythmic pattern to create an illusion of shift of
metrical accents, for example, Variation no. 2.
3.Harmony and Tonality
uses chromatic altered chords to enhance the dramatic and coloristic effects.
a.Full Diminished Seventh Chord:
examples employing diminished seventh chord to create non-functional harmonic
motion, tonal ambiguity and rapid shift of tonicized levels are Variations no.
3, 4, 11, 12.
b.Neapolitan Sixth Chord (bII level):
a chromatic device favored by Schubert, whether appearing in the level of chord
or key, is an effective device to create a feeling of Romantic “Distance”,
which is in fact an aesthetic philosophy commonly found in the late coming
Romantic compositions, such as Schumann’s piano cycle, Papillon op.2. Beethovan’s Variation no. 5, 9, 30 in Diabelli foreshadows such aesthetic
c.Consecutive Chromatic Scalar Passage:
It is a long
tradition for music to express emotions and passions with a running chromatic
scalar passage. Variation no.9, 20, 22 are typical examples to enhance a
Beethoven employs sudden dynamic markings to vary the melody, in
order to create a dramatic effect. Indeed, dramatic contrast is one of
Beethoven’s musical characteristics. His brilliant fanfare-like propelling
piano sonority is largely based on the pianistic idiom of ongoing changes of
dynamics and tempos. Music under the support of such idiomatic passages can
widen the expressiveness of the work.
a.Beethoven uses a wide range of dynamic markings such as “ff”, “fp”,
“sf” in the work. This helps to display a Romantic colored network. Examples
are Variation no. 1, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 13, 21, 22, 28 etc.
b.The use of the dynamic markings of “pp” and “fp” tends to bring out
the classical style of grace and elegance. Variation no. 2, 3, 4, 8, 21, 33 and
the coda are the exemplar.
Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations op. 120, is regarded
as a great master work of the same generic repertoire. Through this work, we
can experience how Beethoven exploits his unrestrained imagination and strict-disciplined
convention, attaining a transcended spiritual state, which is a realm of no
ancestor ever enters. Its influences are tremendous and long-lasting. No matter
it is Schumann’s famous Symphonic Etudes,
or Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of
Handel, these works follow the traits established by Beethoven to develop
the genre to the full. 19th century composers even employed various
variation techniques to enrich the musical garden, helping to develop a
brilliant era of Romanticism, which is an important phase of the evolution of the
entire western music history.
Chime 2015 academic conference is going to begin next Wednesday onward. The Conference in this year will be held at Geneva Univeristy, a well-known university in Europe with the world-ranking 27. The main theme, of course, centers around all kinds of Chinese music, ranging from pop music and traditional ethnic music, to contemporary new music. It is my pleasure that my paper has been accepted and will be delivered on Oct 22, 2015. Since the website for the Conference has just finished a few weeks ago, the time to post all information about the event is not enough to open to the public. My proposal of the presentation, therefore, is published here for all friends' and colleagues' sharing.
For the Conference Event, please visit the followings:
Whose Face? China
Hongkongese or Hong Kong Chinese:
Reshaping the “Chineseness”
by Hearing the Quoted Tunes in
Two Contemporary Hong Kong Compositions
When the umbrellas were held up against the tear gas attack in the
protest on September 28, 2014, the hot issue raised by the marathon-like Yellow
Umbrella Movement was not only the matter of politics but also a coincidence created
for the locals to face or be faced with an already moot cliché: How Hongkongese
can redefine their identity, particularly under the increasingly hegemonic influences
from the mainland. My present paper is not intended to discuss the topic of “identity”
on the platform of postcolonial studies such as transculturation. But instead, I
am far more interested in locating such issue on the aesthetic dimension of
collective memory, which is revealed in two Hong Kong contemporary
compositions, Tung’s The Book of Laughter
and Forgetting (2002), and Chan’s The
Enigma of Moon (1998). In the process of shaping and reshaping the “Chineseness”,
a new face, in which the composers tend to create, and the local listeners tend
to experience, albeit transient, can appear in every nuance of sonic metaphor.
It has been widely known that a sense of history and culture can often
be manifested themselves in the context of collective memory. Acts of recall triggered
by musical sound, I believe, have time and again challenged the destructive
force of time, and drop-by-drop they have woven a picture of what we may now
legitimately call Hong Kong’s “history” and
“culture.” Moreover, to borrow, appropriate or quote from the other
musical cultures for a formally self-contained piece is no longer a
taken-for-granted or unconscious act. Such borrowing is impossible to escape
the question of meaning and motivation of the composer. Yet again this quoted
tune never fails to conjure up a memory in the listener or function as a
representation of one such act of recall from time to time. As such, in this
paper I wish to argue that given Hong Kong’s present unique situation, musical quotation
– typically, a fragment borrowed from indigenous folk tune and Cantonese traditional
opera – is illustrative of the workings of collective memory. Be it a tune,
rhythm or sonority, a reference to a style or genre, a quotation is a tangible
link between the sonic and cultural reality of the past and those of the
present as well as metaphor for the formation of Hong Kong “Chineseness”,
forming part of the local cultural identity.
When answering a viewpoint question in the examination, we have to spend enough time to think carefully about the main issue or argument of that question first. The following is the question about film music analysis in the AMusTCL examination. Student's answer seems to show that she does not understand the main issue of the question. As such, I attempt to rework her answer, refocusing on the crux of the argument and expanding its supporting evidences, so as to give a more satisfactory discussion.
Nov 2010 (c):
Question:Is film music
the modern version of nineteenth-century Programme music? Select and discuss
TWO films from those listed below and refer to any others that are relevant in
your consideration of thequestion.
programme music evokes the listener a specific experience and conveying
emotions, which is written base on non-music idea, images or events. It invites
audience invoke the imaginative correlation with the music. Similarly, film
music is music that accompanies a film, creating narrative space and gives more
body and depth to the story and characters. In this essay, some examples will
Nineteenth-century program music is famous for its expressivity
to narrate a story, or to recall and evoke the relevant experiences and emotions based on the storyline and theextra-musical ideas that embedded in the programmatic description for the
listeners.As such, program musicclaims its communicative legitimacy through the written text,
or program, which, despite the musical sound per se, can offer a larger imaginative space for deeper
interpretation. Similarly, the plot, the dialogues, and the moving images of a
particular scene in the movie is also likened to such referential “program”,
which is capable of offering abundant referential meanings to the corresponding
music, creating an even broader narrative
the audience. From this sense, the on-screen visual “program” of a film becomes
an indispensable guidance to the understanding of the supporting music. As such,
film music, to a certain extent, can be said to be the modern version of
nineteenth-century program music. In
this essay, I will explore three examples
support my claim stated above.
Firstly, in the scene “Seeking a Lesson” of
Crouching Tiger and Hidden Tiger, two narrative spaces are created. On one
hand, Master Long is fighting with many swordsmen. The Chinese percussions
strikes fast with rhythmic pattern, this highlights the fighting action. It
evokes audience the imagination of Chinese “Kung Fu” and intensifies the
tension of fighting action. On the other hand, the Chinese piccolo produces a
relaxing folk tune music which plays against the fighting scene. The lyrical,
slow tempo and dance-like music emits an artistic atmosphere. It synchronizes
to the poem reciting and sword waving by Master Long. This elevates a fighting
action to the Art of Sword Dance of traditional Chinese art.Thus, the music in this scene tells more than
the music itself and gives more body to the story.
Firstly, in the scene “Seeking a Lesson” ofCrouching
Tiger and Hidden Tiger, the on-screen visual program, the plot, tells audiences about
how Jen skillfully plays her artistic “game of sword dancing”, so as to “discipline”
a mob of fierce, trouble-making swordmen in the eatery. If we want to
understand why the underlying music is displayed in two layers of sound – one is
moving rapidly under the support of the Chinese ethnic percussive ensemble, and
the other one is singing in comparatively slower tempo by Chinese piccolo – we
have to consider the “programmatic” reference on the screen. Indeed, the on-screen moving images and dialogues, such as Jen's sword fighting and reciting poem, seem to cry out in two narrative voices for these two musical layers. On the one
hand, the power and strengthen of the sword fighting skill can be experienced from the fast moving Chinese percussion repeated in constant rhythmic
patternintensify the pace and strength
of the fight. On the other hand, Jen 's dexterity and elegant gestures are exhibited through the
music of the slow-moving Chinese piccolo folk tune. Such musical effect can likely elicit a sense of relax, effortless spirits in
audiences, showing Jen’s mastery of the art of sword fighting. Interestingly, this
dance-like tune, accompanying with Jen’s recitation of a traditional
8-line poem, seems to creates an imagined dancing stage, on which only Jen the artistic dancer is swinging freely
to and fro like a bird hovering in the sky.
In fact, to many who know Chinese traditional culture, reciting
poem is an intellectual activity which is usually found in the social
gatherings of ancient literati. These people view sword dancing and poem
reciting is a welcoming entertainment. As such, using slow-wind but fast-percussion
ensemble of the folk musical style of northwestern China in this scene is a
wonderful setting to express howskillful Jen is in
sword fighting, and therefore, she can easily give a “lesson” to the swordmen
and teaches them what is meant by art of sword fighting.Although the audiences may think that the
music is expressing a fierce fighting on the surface, however, by referencing
the visual program reference, their understandings may be greatly adjusted. If
no “program” is provided on-screen for reference, we may misunderstand the underlying ideas of
the music, even of the scene. From this view, film music as a modern version of
program music is undeniable.
The above reworking version (a part of the original essay) is only a suggestion that may help student to understand how to cope with the main issue and how to organize and present the points in a reasoning manner.
The following writing is not a complete article with appropriate argument. It is originally written by a student who attempts to summarize what she has learnt from the film music analysis lessons.
Although the draft contains many grammatical errors and some ideas cannot be clearly explained, the writing direction and ideas are quite good in nature. It is worth to rework on this incomplete writing, though there is absent of the argument.
In fact, analyzing musical sound and transforming it into words is not that easy as one think. The formal analysis, which involves using many jargon-like symbols and signs, is not sufficient enough for such writing to general readers. The following reworking essay can, perhaps, provide a valuable reference for readers who not only want to write musical analysis, but also want to understand the musical meaning of some particular scenes.
Music used in the film
“Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon”
Main focus on fighting
The scene of “Catching
thief” speaks of the first fight occurred between Shu Lien and Jen since Jen
has stolen Wudon master Li’s precious
sword. In order to intensifying the fighting violence, a pair of Chinese drums
is employed to create a series of fast moving percussive sounds. As the level
of excitement is raised, the tempo and volume of the drum ostinato increase simultaneously until reaching the climax. At this
moment, audience’s emotion is also pushed up to the zenith. Such frenzy is
achieved by means of the percussive drum, which is able to create a
contrapuntal two-part texture to multiply the hit points of two fighters'
actions. In addition, the familiar percussive sonority of Chinese drum, to many
audiences, is easily associated with the activities held by traditional Chinese
martial art school, such as lion dancing, or free-fighting competition. Tan
Dun’s idiosyncratic use of such timbre purports not only to express his wanting
to parallel music with the fighting mood of the scene, but also his ambition to
exhibit an oriental characteristic of traditional Chinese Kung Fu to the locals as well as the foreigners.
In the scene of “Dark
Cloud”, Jen’s comb is robbed by Lo and she is eager to get it back. So she
chases Lo and fights with him without noticing that this fight has already
ignited her candle of love, which is suppressed in her inner heart for many
years. Here, the music is designed in two layers of sound of distinct styles.
The first sound layer makes use of the traditional native instrument, yun, to produce a lively, pleasant, and
exotic folk dancing tune. The second one is a layer of rhythmic sound played by
hand drums and other percussive ensemble as the accompaniment moving in
steadily pulsation. To audience, the use of two sound layers is rich in
expressive meanings. On the one hand, a rapid detached sound is created by the
drums to enhance the power and violence of the fighting, creating many hit points
to intensify the fast moving images. On the other hand, a sense of romantic
feeling emanates from the dancing tune, which is composed by using the Xian
Jiang folk scale to highlight a special feature, the augmented 2nd
intervallic flow, in order to soften the vigorous excitement of the fight. In
addition, the native plucking instrument, yun,
is also capable of producing a quite unfamiliar timbral color, seemingly to
inform audience that this love affair between Jen (high social status as
aristocracy of mainland) and Lo (low social status as bandit of ethnic
minority) is an unequal exotic love. Indeed the minority dance tune consists of
the both metrical regularity and spontaneous flexibility, aiming to support
certain lively and vividly gestures in the folk dance. Since dancing always
reminds audience of a cheerful and happy occasion in many traditional festival
activities, such as social gathering for youth to search for lovers or
celebration of harvest, of the ethnic minority, the tune used here can fantastically
romanticize the scene, transforming covertly the hostile tension to a lovely
tender occasion, in which the two lovers can pour out their mutual admirations
to each other without using a single word.
In the scene of “Seeking
a lesson”, the composer has adopted a traditional folk musical style of
Northwest China – music of slow-blowing wind with fast-striking percussions for
instrumental ensemble. Jen exhibits her artful sword fighting skill to give a
lesson to a large group of provocative swordmen in the restaurant. Here, the
meaning of using the traditional folk pattern to accompany the scene is similar
to that of the scene discussed above. Two opposite layers of sound produced by
the ethnic folk ensemble, again, are able to express a musical pun to the
audiences. On the one hand, the striking percussive layer highlights the
fighting actions, enlivening audience’s tensions to the moment of frenzy. On
the other hand, the comparatively slow-moving Chinese piccolo solo tune
displays a glamorous image replete with free, relax, yet artful, gestures. At
this very instant, the warrior Jen has seemingly been transformed to both of a
graceful dancer and a sagacious poet: bouncing to and fro and flaunting her
elegant figure at the one time, reciting lines of a beautiful poem and waving
her sword dexterously like a butterfly fluttering and dancing amid the
ferocious swordmen at the other. It is definitely an appealing traditional
Chinese art of sword dance performance. Here, for this fighting scene, director
Li On tends to elucidate a message to audience that Jen’s mastery of sword
fighting art is likened to the entertaining subjects in an ancient literati
gathering, which always contains poem reciting and sword dancing to enliven the
party. To those literati, these intellectual “games” are so easy, so artistic.
The final discussion
centers on the scene about Li fighting against Jen in the bamboo bush.
Interestingly, the music is designed in sectional form of a ternary like A, B, and A
Sections. While the ethnic wind instrument bawu playing the theme song melody of “Love Before Time”, which is
quite independent of the moving images and moods, the A-melodic music accompaniment in B section implies certain the Buddha philosophical meaning to the scene. Music of these two sections narrate a
voice replete with meanings. In A section, besides the thematic melody of "Love Before Time" is played by bawu, the supporting wind accompaniment plays some glissandi occasionally in slow tempo, going hand in hand with the moving strings of the repeated notes pattern, the ostinato. The accompaniment seems going non-directionally. Without a clear
and specific goal, the music now creates an effect just matching with the two
fighters rapidly swinging to and fro on the top of the bamboo trees without
putting a foot on the firm ground. This A-melodic setting accompaniment forms the B section continually after the main theme song finishes it first murmuring of the fate of Li and Jen's encountering. In fact, fighting in the bamboo bush
pervades both of the religious and symbolic meanings. Since bamboo tree,
according to the “Zen” philosophy, always symbolizes, an “enlightenment”, or
“awakening” from the “secular mediocrity” to the “transcendental Buddha”, Li
chooses to fight with Jen inside the bamboo bush aims to give her a moral
lesson, or in the other word, to “awaken” her from going astray back to the
right way through the Way of Sword. Music used here contributes to soften the
violence of the fighting, bringing much sublime Buddha philosophical message to
audience. In addition, the thematic bawu melody of “Love Before Time” murmurs in A section is used not for
supporting the fighting. Instead, it aims to create a musical voice seemingly to narrate a different
story to the audience. If the non-directional string glissandi in the B section is
voicing the idea of “Zen – Awakening” to audience, the familiar tune of the
theme song “Love Before Time” will undeniably speak in the second voice to notice the
audience that this “awakening” lesson is doomed to be a failure, since it is not
in the right time and the right place. Master Li’s arduous attempts cannot affect the
wild, arrogant girl. His showing of love toward Jen as his Wudon disciple is futile.