When I first heard of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations Op. 120, I thought they had something to do with the devil! But no, in Italian the devil is called “il diavolo”, and Anton Diabelli is the name of an Austrian publisher and composer who lived between 1781 and 1858. He published several works by Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, two important personal acquaintances. He also composed a waltz, and Beethoven wrote a set of 33 variations on the waltz’ theme.
It is one of those pieces that I like to hear and enjoy at night, alone, when the house is quiet and everybody peacefully asleep. I cherish those moments as they have a very special magic, though I usually regret the day after the sleep I missed!
Love-letter to an admirer
Beethoven wrote this set in 1819 and 1823 in Vienna and dedicated it, no, not to Diabelli, but to Antonie Brentano, an Austrian philanthropist, art collector, and arts patron. She was a great admirer of Beethoven, and though there is no definite scientific certainty, it is most likely that she was the woman who Beethoven was desperately in love with. In the summer of 1812 he wrote a passionate love-letter to an unknown woman, whom he addresses as “Unsterbliche Geliebte” (Immortal Beloved).
Unfortunately, Antonie Brentano was already married and any official liaison was out of question. Beethoven was a very ambiguous person when it came to sexual ethics. He strongly condemned his brother for having a mistress, but he often felt himself attracted to married women. And still, by 1812, he came to realize that he could not possibly live together with a woman, if he was to continue his life as a composer.
Beethoven takes a free ride
The origin of the Diabelli Variations is interesting: In 1819, Anton Diabelli, animated by patriotic fervor after Napoleon’s defeat and the Vienna Congress, came up with the idea of inviting popular composers from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to submit a variation on a simple theme. He intended to publish them as an album reflecting the creativity and vitality of the Austrian music scene. Beethoven decided not to contribute just a single variation, but a whole set. Thus Diabelli then published Beethoven’s set in 1823 as a separate collection, while the set he originally had intended to publish, followed in 1824.
A period of personal troubles
When Beethoven started to write the Diabelli Variations, he had just overcome a period marked by several psychological blows linked to his “impossible” love to Antonie Brentano, a quarrel with his brother over his mistress, an embarrassing legal dispute over the fact that Beethoven posed as a nobleman while in fact he was a commoner, the preoccupation with the care of his nephew and his deteriorating health. He interrupted his work after having written the first 20 variations and did not pick up the set before 1823.
Among the variations I prefer are numbers 2, (Poco Allegro), 3 (L’Istesso Tempo), 6 (Allegro ma non Troppo e Serioso), 14 (Grave e Maestoso), 21 (Allegro con Brio), 29 (Adagio ma non Troppo), 31 (Largo, Molto Espressivo) and 33 (Tempo di Menuetto Moderato). I can recommend the very good recording by the Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov.
© Charles Thibo