BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations (Andrew Walton/ Konstantin Scherbakov) (Naxos: 8.554372)
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Ludwig van Beethoven(1770-1827)
Diabelli Variations,Op. 120
Variations on God Savethe King, WoO 78
Variations on RuleBritannia, WoO 79
Born in Bonn in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven was the eldest son of asinger in the musical establishment of the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne and,more important, grandson of the Archbishop's former Kapellmeister, whose namehe took. The household was not a happy one. Beethoven's father, described afterhis death as a considerable loss to the profits of the wine trade, becameincreasingly inadequate both as a singer and as a father and husband, with hiswife always ready to draw invidious comparisons between him and his own father.
Beethoven, however, was trained as a musician, however erratically, and dulyentered the service of the Archbishop, serving as an organist and as astring-player in the archiepiscopal orchestra. He was already winning somedistinction in Bonn, when, in 1787, he was first sent to Vienna, to study withMozart. The illness of his mother forced an early return from this venture andher subsequent death left him with responsibility for his younger brothers, inview of his father's domestic and professional failures. In 1792 Beethoven wassent once more to Vienna, now to study with Haydn, whom he had met in Bonn.
Beethoven's early career in Vienna was helped very considerably by thecircumstances of his move there. The Archbishop was a son of the Empress MariaTheresa and there were introductions to leading members of society in theimperial capital. From Haydn he claimed to have learned nothing and his teachermust have been dismayed at times by his pupil's duplicity, but he went on totake lessons also from Albrechtsberger, well known for his mastery ofcounterpoint, and from the Court Composer Antonio Salieri, and was able toestablish an early position for himself as a pianist of remarkable ability,coupled with a clear genius in the necessarily related arts of improvisationand composition.
The onset of deafness at the turn of the century seemed an irony ofFate. It led Beethoven gradually away from a career as a virtuoso performer andinto an area of composition where he was able to make remarkable changes andextensions of existing practice. Deafness tended to accentuate hiseccentricities and paranoia, which became extreme as time went on. At the sametime it allowed him to develop an aspect of his music that some critics alreadyregarded as academic or learned, that of counterpoint, an art in which he hadacquired great mastery. He continued to develop forms inherited from hispredecessors, notably Haydn and Mozart, but expanded these almost tobursting-point, introducing innovation after innovation as he grew older. Tofollowing generations his music offered a challenge. For some he seemed to havebrought the symphony, in particular, to a final climax, and composers likeBrahms, who drew on earlier tradition, were faced with the daunting task ofcontinuing on a path that, for some, at least, seemed already to have reachedits height.
Beethoven died in 1827, leaving a body of work that has continued toprovide subsequent generations with an essential heart to their repertoire,whether in the concertos and symphonies or in the sonatas and chamber music.
The art of variation lies at the heart of a great deal of music.
Extended works may include movements consisting of variations, whether sotitled or not. In improvisation variation is essential, since a performer was,and is, often obliged to offer variations on a given theme as a demonstrationof this skill. Beethoven's earliest variations date from 1782 when he wrote aset of variations on a theme by the singer Ernst Christoph Dressier. His Variationson a Waltz by A. Diabelli offer the final example of this form ofcomposition, completed in 1823.
The Austrian publisher and composer Anton Diabelli had at firstestablished himself in Vienna in the second capacity and as a teacher. Work forthe publishers S.A. Steiner & Co. led him, in 1817, to set up in businessas a publisher himself, at first selling his own works and then, in partnershipwith Pietro Cappi, issuing a quantity of popular music for which he found animmediate market. In 1819 he embarked on a project to invite variations fromevery well known Austrian composer on a simple waltz melody of his own. Thefinal result was a collection of some fifty variations, contributed by fiftycomposers, including among their number Schubert and the eleven-year-old Liszt,the whole set capped by a final variation by Czerny, to be published as apatriotic Vaterlandischer K??nstlerverein (Fatherland's Society ofArtists).
Beethoven at first demurred, when invited to contribute a variation tothe collection, but gradually his purpose changed, as he added variation tovariation. By the autumn of 1822 he was writing to Diabelli on the matter ofhis own variations, which, it had been agreed, should be issued as a separatework. For this Beethoven asked a fee of forty ducats, if the work shoulddevelop as he intended. As so often in Beethoven's business dealings, therewere simultaneous negotiations with other publishers and plans, through hisfriend Ferdinand Ries, to issue the work in London, with a dedication to Ries'swife. In the event the set of 33 Variations was published in June1823 by Diabelli and Cappi, with a dedication to Antonia von Brentano, and theagreement that Ries had made with the London publishers came to nothing.
Beethoven was able to blame his friend Schindler for everything, in trying toexcuse himself to Ries for the failure of the planned London publication andits proposed dedication.
The C major waltz provided by Diabelli for the variations is one ofgreat simplicity, described by Beethoven as Schusterfleck ('Cobbler'sPatching'), a little piece making much use of the device of sequence, therepetition of a simple figure at different pitches. Beethoven starts hisvariations with a march, continues with a syncopated version, followed by anexhibition of hand-crossing. There is an imitative opening to the fourthvariation, a rhythmically imitative fifth and a more challenging sixth. Theseventh variation offers rhythmic variety with its dotted notes and triplets,the eighth makes use of a curious repeated figure in the bass againstright-hand chords and the C minor ninth, heavy and resolute, alternates, atfirst, left and right hand Left ?¡hand octaves, at first descending, are afeature of the light staccato tenth version of the waltz, with mountingright-hand chords later ascending over a deep left-hand trill and a final bassnote that reaches the depths of the newly extended keyboard of the time. Agently imitative Allegretto is followed by an excursion into even moreimaginative territory in the twelfth variation, a Vivace and, thefourteenth version of the material, a more solemn treatment of it. A Prestoscherzando offers contrast, followed by an Allegro with dividedoctaves in the left hand, which has the theme in the seventeenth variation. Theeighteenth offers contrasts of register and there is canonic imitation in thenineteenth, with a slow Andante 6/4 to follow. The leaping octaves ofthe following version of the theme frame a contrasting Meno allegro section,while the twenty-second is based on Leporello's comic Notte e giorno faticar('Tired out night and day') from Mozart's Don Giovanni. There isvariety of contrary motion in what follows, leading to a muted four-voicefughetta. The twenty-fifth variation sets right-hand chords against a busyleft-hand figuration and this is followed by a study in rapid broken triads anda