The enlightened listening blog

The Diabelli Effect

This past week I gave two performances of Beethoven’s great Diabelli Variations. To say that it was like welcoming back an old friend (after ten years of not performing it) would be understatement. It had an energising force on me on me which I remember from the past, but magnified even more this time around.

I remember Stephen Hough once saying (unboastfully) that there was something about the Brahms Second Piano Concerto (one of the most difficult in the repertory) which allowed him to not have to practise it much anymore. I couldn’t quite believe how that could be possible at the time, but I find I feel similarly about the Diabelli Variations. I was heartened that the piece came back within a few days, as though I had left it for a few weeks and not ten years. A lot of that familiarity comes with having played all the sonatas and feeling more “at home” in Beethoven than in any other composer except Schubert.

But there must be other factors as well. When I play the work I feel like I am in a playground. Every time I finish one variation I thoroughly look forward to the next one. Each variation inhabits an emotional world of its own, and each is a little dramatic miniature with twin climaxes, one at the end of each half. Beethoven treats these climaxes differently in each piece of course, but the visceral pleasure of building to these climaxes and really letting loose is one of the chief joys of playing the work. And as there are 33 variations, these climaxes occur  over 120 times including the repeats. I don’t know of any other work which allows a performer to indulge so lavishly in exciting climaxes as much as this one – or anything close. This is a major reason that the work is so fulfilling to perform.

Arthur Schnabel once quipped that when he performed the Diabellis he always had the greatest time, but felt sorry for his audience for having to sit through it. I doubt that many of his audience members suffered from boredom. But it is a long and very intense piece of music, which demands much of  (not completely tuned-in) audience members throughout its 55 minute duration. Much of it seems odd, quirky, whimsical, not overly serious, and then very serious; a mixed bag in every sense. So for some listeners (including myself before I came under its spell), the diverseness can leave one feeling a little adrift, the piece not held together sufficiently. Unlike Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s work is not divided into easily identifiable sections. And yet for me the musical logic and structure are so strong that the piece seems half its actual length.

At my first recital a great enthusiast of music told me how much she had admired my performance. I sensed something missing, so I immediately asked whether she liked the piece. “Not at all!”, she said. “I felt sorry for Beethoven, who must have been mentally ill when he wrote it!” I told her to go and seek out Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge op.133, for string quartet, if she thinks the Diabellis are crazy. I took her remarks as a complement both to me and the music. Beethoven was supremely uncrazy in his search for new ways to express his ideas, breaking the bounds of his former styles. A listener at the second recital said that he now, for the first time in his life, had woken up to Beethoven, whom he had hitherto found heavy and even boring. He has listened to the work three more times since.

These were heartening comments, different though they were. It’s impossible to feel indifferent to this music, or to Beethoven in general. One very musically well-versed friend claims it as his favorite piece of all music, not just piano music. It is one of my favorite repertory pieces, and probably the most intensely thrilling of all to perform.

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One Response to The Diabelli Effect

  1. Julio Joseph Crews says:

    Glad you are so nourished by the Diabellis…..I would say that I am at midpoint between the two people you mentioned on your blog, perhaps leaning more to the one who learned to like Beethoven but still not there. I guess my heart belongs to JSB! JULIO

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