Beethoven’s Variations on a Diabelli Waltz Op. 120

The circumstances that favored the composition of the Variations Op. 120 are well known: the Viennese publisher Antonio Diabelli (1781-1858) had the idea of putting together a kind of national Parnassus by asking fifty composers residing in the Habsburg Empire to each write a Variation on his own waltz. The collection was published in 1824 under the pompous title "National Society of Artists".  Most of the musicians are nowadays unknown, but we also find some celebrities: Schubert, Moscheles, Hummel, Czerny, Kalkbrenner, the thirteen year old Liszt

We do not find Beethoven, because Beethoven had been working on Diabelli's waltz since 1819, and in 1823 he had given the publisher a monument of thirty-three Variations, which were published in the same year with a dedication to Antonia Brentano, wife of the banker Franz and sister-inlaw of Bettina and Clemens Brentano.  Since Vincent d'Indy once supported his thesis on Beethoven's racist beliefs, stating among other things that the composer had not dedicated any of his works to Jews, it is not out of place to observe that Antonia Brentano, born von Birbenstock, was Jewish. 

In an unrepeatable historical synthesis, the Variations Op. 120 summarize in themselves all the backward journey made by two generations of musicians who were the first to notice the problem of inserting musical creation into history rather than into actuality.  Starting from the elementary geometry - but not trivial - of Diabelli's waltz, Beethoven goes through different styles to conclude with five Variations of archaic flavor, reminiscent of the Baroque or (the last) an eighteenth century felt as a place of a transfigured arcadia

The definitive reacquisition of stylistic features of the past is a fundamental trait of the late Beethoven (think of the Fugues of the last piano Sonatas and of the last Quartets, or the use of the ancient modality in the Missa Solemnis Op. 123 and in the Quartet Op. 132).  Here Beethoven returns to the Baroque: the Twenty-ninth and Thirty-first Variations are two Baroque Adagios, the Thirtieth Variation is a four-part, non-rigorous Invention, and the Thirty-second is a double Fugue; the Thirty-third is a Minuet (Tempo di Minuetto), a stylized or transfigured minuet which Geiringer rightly calls "an epilogue in heaven". 

Structural subdivisions are not indicated by Beethoven and this poses a problem for scholars and performers.  It is very evident the author’s care in differentiating the Variations through the alternation of different rhythms, speeds, ways of attacking the sound.  It is also very evident the division into two parts.  The extraordinary Twentieth Variation most clearly represents the conclusion of the first part and the watershed between the first and the second: all conducted at the level of soft intensity, with very low rhythmic density and without ever touching the high register of the piano, it was called by Franz Liszt "The Sphinx" and it was Gabriele D’Annunzio’s favorite.  

The two parts therefore follow the proportion of the golden section: the ratio between the thirty-four pieces (Theme and thirty-three Variations) of the whole and the twenty-one (Theme and twenty Variations) of the first part is equal to the ratio between the twenty-one of the first and the thirteen (Variations from twenty-first to thirty-third) of the second part.  Also the two parts are in turn divided according to the golden section: the first part presents a subdivision between the twelfth and thirteenth Variation, the second between the twenty-eighth and the twenty-ninth. 

The composition is therefore organized according to these four main groups: 

  • Theme - Var. XII (13 pieces)
  • Var. XIII - Var. XX (8 pieces)
  • Var. XXI - Var. XXVIII (8 pieces)
  • Var. XXIX - Var. XXXIII (5 pieces)

Finally, the first group is also subdivided according to the golden section: this subdivision is less evident, but in reality it is very important, because in the fifth Variation the tonal structure of the waltz is changed for the first time (instead of the trend from tonic to dominant and vice versa, in the fifth Variation we pass from the tonic to the relative minor of the dominant and vice versa).  With the further subdivision of the first group Beethoven therefore establishes, within the general subdivision according to the golden rule, a symmetrical subdivision: 5, 8, 8, 8, 5 pieces. 

The genre of the variation had never found before such a formal concentration, organized by groups and on a tight arc, articulated according to precise and functional proportions.   That will become a model of organization for the romantic cycles of short forms. 

Alongside the Variations Op. 120 completed in 1823 we immediately find Schubert’s Valses Sentimentales, composed between 1823 and 1824 and published in 1825: a cycle of thirty-four pieces, organized according to very subtle formal relationships, which take into account geometric symmetries and the golden section.  The revolutionary step that Schubert takes, compared to Beethoven, concerns the tonal structure: while the Variations Op. 120 still maintain the tonal unity (the key of C major prevails in the overall arc of the composition), Schubert’s Valses break it up, creating an unprecedented relationship between a first and a second tonal area, spaced by a descending major third. 

Photo: Anton Diabelli (1781-1858)

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