Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Ludwig van Beethoven, Diabelli Variations for piano

Beethoven (1770-1827) in 1820, painted by Joseph Karl Stieler
Beethoven (1770-1827) in 1820, painted by Joseph Karl Stieler

The Project

In early 1819, the Vienna-based music publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858) had what was a great idea for a charity project. He sent a brief waltz of his own composition to 50 composers living in Austria and invited each of them to compose a single variation on the waltz.  Diabelli’s plan was to publish the set as an anthology entitled “Patriotic Artist’s Club” (“Vaterländischer Künstlerverein”) and distribute the profits from its sale to widows and children left orphaned by the Napoleonic Wars.

Among the composers to receive the theme and Diabelli’s invitation to participate in his project was the 48-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven. 

Typical to form, Beethoven was deeply irked at being included in such a “group grope,” on top of which he dismissed Diabelli’s theme as a “cobbler’s patch”: as being entirely beneath his musical dignity.

But then, for reasons discussed in yesterday’s Music History Monday post, Beethoven had a change of heart, and decided to accept Diabelli’s offer after all.  But Beethoven was unwilling to join the mob of composers who had consented to contribute but a single variation each. Instead, he made it clear that his contribution would be a complete set of variations, the number of which he had yet to determine. Beethoven put aside his work on the Missa Solemnis and began work on the variations, and by the summer of 1819 he had completed 23 of them.  But then he put the variations aside for nearly four years, during which he completed the Missa Solemnis and composedhis last three piano sonatas.  He finally returned to the variations in February 1823, and finished the set in March or April of that year.  

Why “33” Variations?

“33” might seem a strange number for Beethoven to fasten onto, but in fact, Beethoven had a number of reasons for composing 33 variations on Diabelli’s theme. 

Back in 1806, Beethoven composed for piano a work entitled “32 Variations in C Minor on an Original Theme,” WoO 80. Though the piece was published, Beethoven was so unhappy with it that he refused to assign it an opus number.  He went so far as to scoff at himself for having composed the thing, saying later in reference to it: 

“Oh Beethoven, what an ass you were!”

Perhaps – so the thinking goes – Beethoven composed 33 variations on Diabelli’s theme in order to do himself “one better” than his earlier work, one he didn’t like at all!   

There is also speculation that Beethoven’s decision to compose 33 variations on Diabelli’s theme was an oblique reference to his just-composed piano sonatas.  Beethoven completed his final piano sonata – No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111 – in 1822.  The “valedictory character” of the final movement of Op. 111 made it pretty clear, even at the time, that Beethoven had little intention of composing another piano sonata.  Consequently, having just completed this 32nd and final piano sonata, Beethoven returned to the Diabelli Variations intent, perhaps, on crowning his 32 sonatas with 33 variations.   

It is also likely that Beethoven wanted to “one-up” Johann Sebastian Bach’s epochal Goldberg Variations, which consists of thirty-two sections of music: two statements of the theme (one at the beginning and one at the end of the piece) bookending thirty variations.…

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