Diabelli Variations Op. 120 Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

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PROGRAM NOTES: PAUL LEWIS

Franz Joseph Haydn
Sonata in E minor Hob. XVI:34

It is unusual to encounter a sonata in a minor key from “Papa” Haydn, a composer best known for his chipper disposition. But his Sonata in E minor likely dates from the late 1770s, which could explain its turbulent mood. The 1770s was the decade of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), an aesthetic trend that promoted extreme emotionalism in art. In music, the result was moody or stormy works in a minor key evoking abnormal psychological states.

The first movement of the E minor Sonata exemplifies this tribute to abnormality both in its obsessive repetition of the same motivic material over and over again and in the disjointed nature of its construction. It lurches forward in small motivic gasps, echoed between the hands, and sometimes simply stops dead in its tracks for an unnerving moment of silence in which nothing at all happens—the equivalent of a worrisome character in a film dropping what he is doing and looking directly into the camera for several seconds. Its eruption into a fiery coda at the end of the recapitulation foretells a structural anomaly that would be used to great effect by his student, Beethoven.

There is a slightly manic quality to the way in which the Adagio second movement appears fully decked out in melodic circumlocutions of ornament straight out of the gate, like a person who talks too much because of some sense of nervousness or anxiety. The worry is brought to the surface when the minor mode surfaces at the very end, in a cadence on the dominant that leads directly to the concluding rondo.

The opening refrain of this finale features a simple, toe-tapping, folk-like melody over a churning Alberti bass that gives it a kind of devil-may-care breeziness, despite its being in the minor mode. The movement makes great play out of the alternation of major and minor, but these are merely differences in tone colouring. The underlying sense of bubbly good spirits is evident throughout. Haydn gives us here a taste of what Mendelssohn was to do many decades later: use the minor mode to convey merriment rather than concern.

Johannes Brahms
3 Intermezzi Op. 117

Brahms’s late piano works are often described as ‘autumnal’. They are seen as the products of a musical career approaching its close, combining the serene, often wistful outlook of old age with outbursts of a passion more remembered than spontaneous, more relived than urgent. And yet these late works are anything but the lesser offerings of a composer in decline. They represent the distilled essence of his musical style, applied with the calm assurance of a master craftsman, a composer with nothing left to prove.

While generally subdued in mood and dynamic range, these works offer a wealth of intriguing piano textures set in a lavishly orchestral range of tone colours. Their formal dimensions are modest. Most are laid out in a simple ternary (A-B-A) design in which an opening A section yields to a contrasting B section, and then returns to conclude the piece as it began. Although these are small-scale works, the concentration of Brahms’s musical thinking is evident in how tightly their motivic elements are woven together.

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The Three Intermezzi of Op. 117, published in 1892, combine a childlike simplicity of expression with an underlying seriousness of mood much akin to melancholy. Brahms described them as “three lullabies of my sorrows” and a quality of consolation is indeed evident in the andante pacing and ‘rocking’ character of all three.

The first of the set, the Intermezzo in E flat major, actually quotes the German translation of a Scottish lullaby above the first line of the score. The ‘inner’ quality of the opening melody is symbolically enhanced by its position in the middle of the texture, with repeated pedal tones brightly ringing above it, and quietly throbbing below. Its middle section moves darkly in a series of short sighing phrases in E flat minor, making all the more magical and luminous the reprise of the opening lullaby at the end.

The Intermezzo in B flat minor is ingeniously crafted as a miniature sonata movement. Its first theme is a yearning, Schumannesque melody pieced together from a succession of two-note slurs, unfolding delicately atop a pattern of arpeggios passed between the hands. The second theme in block chords is a variant of the first—a typical Brahmsian touch—and the development section dwells expansively on the flowing arpeggios of the opening section. Remarkable in this intermezzo are the many passages of smoky piano overtones that Brahms sends wafting up from the nether regions of the keyboard.

The final Intermezzo in C# minor is a musical cabinet of curiosities. Its modal folk-like melody is presented austerely at first in bare-bones octaves that alternate with more fulsome harmonized settings, many of them featuring the tune buried in the middle of the harmony. The middle section in the major mode scatters a rainbow of tonal colours in widely-spaced sonorities over a full five octaves of the keyboard, each phrase predicated on the resolution of a series of syncopations across the bar line. Particularly captivating in this intermezzo is how teasingly irregular it is, almost entirely laid out in five-bar phrases.

Ludwig van Beethoven
Diabelli Variations Op. 120

In 1819 the Viennese composer and publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) issued a call to 51 Austrian composers to contribute a variation each to a waltz theme of his own composition. He would publish these in a collected edition for the relief of widows & orphans of the Napoleonic wars, an initiative that was part charitable (Bob Geldof’s Band Aid avant la lettre) and part clever marketing. The invitation list included the leading compositional lights of the era, including Schubert, Hummel, Franz Xaver Mozart (Wolfgang’s son), and Beethoven’s friend and patron, the Archduke Rudolph, personages whose association with Diabelli’s publishing firm would greatly enhance its prestige. Even the pre-pubescent Franz Liszt got into the collection, likely through the intercession of his teacher Carl Czerny, who was also on the list.

Fifty of the fifty-one composers duly submitted their single variation. One did not. Ludwig van Beethoven had a better idea. In a creative spurt he began working on a massive work based on Diabelli’s theme, completing more than 20 variations in 1819 and picking up the project again to add more in 1823, in which year his complete set of 33 Diabelli Variations was published.

This monumental work has often been compared to Bach’s Goldberg Variations for its encyclopedic scope and masterful display of compositional technique. Alfred Brendel has declared it “the greatest of all piano works” and odds are that his student, Paul Lewis, shares that view. While audiences have found its extreme length, bizarre chromaticism and wild contrasts a stumbling block to a heartfelt embrace of the work, a knowledge of Beethoven’s ribald sense of humour and fondness for parody goes a long way towards bringing the reluctant listener on board.

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Diabelli’s theme, the initial starting point of the work, has found few admirers, having been labelled as trivial, banal, even outright stupid by any number of distinguished scholars with whom it is hard to disagree. But its very weaknesses—its chugging chordal accompaniment and repetitive harmonic sequences, its cutesy opening grace-note figure answered ludicrously octaves below in the bass, not to mention its lumbering air of yokelish self-confidence—are the very features that Beethoven zeroes in on for his variations. So rather than simply decorating the musical ideas of the waltz, Beethoven uses these characteristics to give each variation a radically distinct personality, drawn musically in high relief. Var. 9, for example, does nothing but obsess over the theme’s initial grace-note figure, like a stuttering child that can get out no more than the first word of his sentence.

Most of the set is ruled by an ethos of Homeric jest, with parody and originality vying in equal measure for the listener’s interest. The most comical of the set is undoubtedly Var.13, in which the chattering accompaniment of the theme is omitted entirely, leaving long gaps of silence against which the loud pompous chords outlining the theme’s harmonic structure sound absolutely silly.

References to other composers’ music undoubtedly inform the style of many of the variations but seldom as overtly as in Var. 22 in which Diabelli’s waltz theme is dressed up as Leporello singing Notte e giorno faticar from the opening of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. It is hardly a coincidence that Leporello’s complaint about how hard he has to work could apply equally well to the pianist’s own labours in the following Var. 23, a parody of a five-finger exercise by piano virtuoso Johann Baptist Cramer (1771-1858). And yet, Beethoven himself is no slouch when it comes to creating brilliant and arresting piano textures, especially with flurries of trills, as in Variations 6, 10, 16, and 21, or in the cascading canonic entries that dazzle the ear in Var. 19.

These high-impact pianistically-inspired variations sit side-by-side with more contrapuntal treatments of the theme, such as the fughetta of Var. 24, after which the learned and lyrical effusions of the following stomping German dance of Var. 25 sounds particularly incongruous. These ‘sound gags’ stop for good, though, when the tone colour turns for the first time to the minor mode in Var. 29, initiating a set of three slow variations of imposing seriousness. From here on in, Beethoven gets into his hot-air balloon and begins a steady ascent into the ethereal realms of musical poetry familiar from his last sonatas Opp. 109 to 111.

Var. 31 is a profoundly expressive, richly-ornamented aria that invites comparisons with Variation 25 from Bach’s Goldbergs. This is followed in Var. 32 by a monumental multi-themed fugue that transmutes the trite repeated chords of the waltz theme into a shoulder-poking fugue subject of a distinctly Handelian stamp to bring the work as a whole to what seems to be its apotheosis.

But no. Instead, a dramatic series of arpeggios stretching from one end of the keyboard to the other sweeps all the musical toys off the table so as to begin again … with a final minuet. The rough bass-heavy waltz that began the proceedings 33 variations ago now closes this work as an elegant courtly dance ascending to the stars in the high treble in a manner not unlike that of the arietta finale of the Sonata in C minor Op. 111.

Donald G. Gíslason 2019

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