The thirty-three variations on the theme of the waltz from Diabelli’s waltz (1823, Op. 120) were written at a difficult time in the composer’s life, when Beethoven, having just recently completed his last sonatas and struggling with severe illness, completed his Missa solemnis and his Ninth Symphony.
The stimulus to compose the work came from without. In 1819 the Viennese publisher and amateur composer Antonio Diabelli wrote his modest waltz – or, more precisely, his Ländler. These sixteen bars, as a theme for the variation, were sent out to all of Austria’s leading composers of the time with the request to write several variations. Assembled together, they were prepared for publication in one volume. Apart from Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Carl Czerny, Ignaz Moscheles, Johann Hummel and Czerny’s pupil, the wunderkind Franz Liszt were among the composers who were involved in the publication. Beethoven accepted Diabelli’s offer and said that for the fee promised (eighty guldens) he would write not one or two but rather twenty variations. In the event, he wrote thirty-three, which when published formed a separate second volume whereas all of the rest went into the first.
It is enough to listen to this cycle just once to understand that here Beethoven was not only examining the variation possibilities of the piece, but also having a dialogue with his own self. The composer’s inner being at that period is also reflected in the manuscript of the work – the first variations are written out in a relatively neat hand (if that expression may be applied to Beethoven’s manuscripts at all), while the subsequent ones, as the idea grew in complexity, become increasingly illegible. The sheet music contains many corrections, and Beethoven twice spilt ink on the score. This all speaks of the composer’s anxious inner state and the extreme tension of his creative energy.
Beethoven’s thirty-three variations form an extremely complex work which his contemporaries were initially at a loss to understand, as, apropos, many other late works by the genius. In Beethoven’s lifetime it was never performed. Now, however, Beethoven’s variations on a theme by Diabelli are a veritable encyclopaedia of piano genius for a musician. Performing this incredibly complex work is always an artistic feat for the pianist. And each return to it results in new discoveries. As Svyatoslav Richter admitted, when performing Beethoven’s variations he finally understood that he knows nothing about this music and must start from the beginning again.
Last year the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, thanks to concerted fundraising efforts, succeeded in purchasing the manuscript of the “thirty-three variations”, which until then had been in private hands.