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 op.120
Based on the Reference:董學渝. The Studies of Beethoven Diabelli Variations and Thirty-Two Variations in C Minor. 全音音樂出版社, 1992.
From 1782 when the nine variations were firstly written for the piano movement in Nine Variations on a March by Dressler 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 Diabelli Variations 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 Diabelli Variation 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. Diabelli Variations 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:
a. Turn figure:
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.
b. Trill figure, arpeggiation, running scalar passage:
Beethoven favors to employ such compositional devices to display his passionate fury, at times parodic, and at the other times, seriously designed.The examples of using these devices are as follows:
i. Trill figure: Variation no. 6, 16, 21
ii. Arpeggiation: Variation no. 6, 7, 19, 25
iii. Running Scalar Passage: Variation no. 10, 22, 23, 27, 31 and 32.
c. Short fragmented motive and Cantabile melody:
Beethoven’s 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.
Beethoven 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:
Beethoven, as 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 and 31.
1. Skillful rhythmic complex:
The rhythmic 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 22.
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:
The function 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 no. 26.
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
Beethoven intentionally uses chromatic altered chords to enhance the dramatic and coloristic effects.
a. Full Diminished Seventh Chord:
Several 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):
Flattened Second, 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 significance.
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 similar effect.
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.
PhD (Musicology, Candidacy), MPhil (Musicology), MPhil (Music Theory),
BMus 1stHon (Composition and Electronic Music),
LRSM (Music Theory), LTCL (Music Composition)
BMus 1stHon (Composition and Electronic Music),
LRSM (Music Theory), LTCL (Music Composition)