The Diabelli Variations

Tribute albums have been around for about as long as any other kind of record, but they really took off in the 90s when the “Various Artists” section of your neighborhood record shop (likely to be largely CDs in those days) swelled. Some artists were fortunate enough to find such a collection could buoy their careers by introducing their music to a larger audience. Sometimes the covers disc eclipsed the sales of the original recordings, as for instance with Sweet Relief – A Benefit for Victoria Williams in 1993, and a subsequent album of Vic Chesnutt’s songs.

It may be some songwriters will be best remembered by such a collection long after they’ve left us, and to further this theory we’d like to look a ways further into the past, about 135 years. This is when an Austrian music publisher, Antonin Diabelli, embarked upon a charity project to benefit the country’s orphans and widows in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. To create his fundraising publication, Vaterländischer Künstlerverein (“Variations for the Pianoforte on a Given Theme”), he sent a waltz he had written to every A-List composer he knew and asked each to write variations on it. Fifty complied, including Franz Schubert, a now largely-unheard son of Mozart, and a then-twelve-year-old Franz Liszt. And then there was the fifty-first contribution, which came from Ludwig van Beethoven.

At this time, the monumental maestro was working with renewed fervor on the late sonatas (including the epic, finger-twisting twenty-ninth), the late quartets, the Missa Solemnis and that capstone of all works, the Symphony no. 9 in D Minor. His initial reaction was to dismiss the project as beneath his talents, as we know from his description of the piece as Schusterfleck, a German term of derision (literally “Cobbler’s patch”) which compares work to mundane stitching. Beethoven’s secretary and earliest biographer Anton Schindler, fond as he was of exaggerating Beethoven’s accomplishments, claimed he quickly created his thirty-three variations so as to establish his enduring prowess. More likely, Beethoven was promised a princely sum for a set of variations and complied for the cash. Studies of his sketchbooks suggest the variations were not written at one time, contradicting Schindler’s story.

The scale and depth of his set of variations, thirty-three in all, certainly did serve to further his supremacy in Vienna at the time. They were published, along with one each from the fifty other contributors, in 1823. The Diabelli Variations, op. 120, were his last major works for the piano published before his death three years later. And Antonin Diabelli, who likely initiated the project to advance his publishing business, achieved at least part of his goal in establishing the endurance of his name. The work is a favorite among Beethovenians, widely recorded and performed, and even the subject of a Tony-nominated play (33 Variations) produced in 2009.

Famously described by Daniel Barenboim as “thirty-three mutation,” Beethoven takes tiny elements of Diabelli’s melody and expands them. Throughout the series, which hardly strays from its original C-Major setting, Beethoven makes reference to Bach, his own sonatas, and most famously to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Beethoven changes direction in the last several variations, first shifting to the minor and then, in number thirty-two, to the key of E-Flat-Major. This leads to a dramatic flourish which builds to a comfortable return to Diabelli’s key for the brief closing minuet in number thirty-three.

Some pianist, such as Alfred Brendel, have suggested his thirty-three variations were intended as a capstone to the thirty-two sonatas, the last of which had only recently been published. There is also an account of Beethoven having asked Diabelli how many composers had contributed variations to the project, and when told thirty-two said, “I shall write thirty-three myself.”

Owing to how ridiculous thirty-three little track players would be, we’ve posted this recording of Rudolf Serkin performing The Diabelli Variations in two tracks, one for each side of the record. The first track contains numbers 1-19 and the second track contains the remaining eighteen. You’ll have to forgive the noisiness of our this copy of the album, which was recorded from our personal collection.

There’s an interesting story about Serkin himself, who made his debut at seventeen years old while living with the family of German violinist Adolf Busch. Joining his host and others in a performance of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, young Serkin was asked to play a little encore. As a joke, he suggested that other famous set of variations, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “I took him seriously,” recounted Serkin, “When I finished there were only four people left — Busch, [pianist] Artur Schnabel, [musicologist] Alfred Einstein and me.”

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