Picking through Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations

Pianist Glenn Gould popularized Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations with his landmark 1955 recording. Might Moisés Kaufman’s Tony-nominated play “33 Variations” — running this month at the Ahmanson Theatre and starring Jane Fonda — create a new host of fans for another ingenious set of piano variations?

Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations forms the core of Kaufman’s drama. Adding to the music appreciation spirit of “33 Variations,” Fonda plays a musicologist, supplying rare glamour to a scholarly profession that normally eludes public attention. Her character, Katherine Brandt, copes with terminal illness while consumed with the origins and mysteries of Beethoven’s immortal variations. “I find such beautiful symmetry in his design,” Brandt says at one point in the play.

Still, the “Diabelli” Variations would seem a much harder sell for audiences than Bach’s “Goldberg.” Sprawling and strange with abrupt changes in mood and key, the 50-minute “Diabelli” Variations is Beethoven’s longest piano work, composed toward the end of his life when he took the symphony and string quartet into uncharted realms. To contemporary ears, there is still much in the “Diabelli” that is startling and difficult. And for pianists, the piece poses an overabundance of interpretative and technical challenges, virtually requiring the same obsession that preoccupied its composer.


“As a performer, you feel like you’ve lived a whole lifetime by the time you get to the end of it. It’s like going on a soul’s journey,” says Diane Walsh, the onstage pianist in “33 Variations.”

During the course of the play, Walsh performs selections from the “Diabelli” Variations that accompany or connect the play’s 34 short scenes, in effect bridging the present with Beethoven’s time (a slovenly Beethoven, played here by Zach Grenier, figures prominently in the story). Walsh says that with a performance of the “Diabelli,” “I feel that the listener has to go with you, and take a scary quest in a way, to get through all these experiences and get to where you kind of transcend it all.”

Walsh has been involved with “33 Variations” since its beginning, in Washington, D.C., in 2007, at La Jolla Playhouse in 2008 and on Broadway in 2009. The “Diabelli” Variations has been with her much longer, ever since she was a student at Juilliard. Walsh, who teaches at New York’s Mannes College of Music, estimates that, counting her work in “33 Variations,” she has played the “Diabelli” Variations hundreds of times.

Taking a break from a recent rehearsal, Walsh says that it was the humor of the piece that first got her attention, beginning with its 32-bar theme. Written by publisher Anton Diabelli in 1819, this rambunctious waltz was sent by Diabelli to several of Vienna’s composers, including Beethoven, with the intention that each of them compose a single variation to the tune. Beethoven initially balked (he supposedly described the waltz as “a cobbler’s patch”), then wrote 23 variations and put the music aside. Four years later, he completed the remaining 10 variations.

During the early 19th century, piano variations were normally middlebrow entertainment that elaborated on a popular melody. But during the course of the “Diabelli” Variations, the musically ridiculous rubs shoulders with the sublime; Diabelli’s humble theme undergoes radical transformation. In triviality, Beethoven found a pathway to cosmic contemplation.

On second thought, might there be more substance to Diabelli’s waltz than is initially assumed? It’s one of several questions that Fonda’s character poses, including why Beethoven composed it in the first place.

“It’s an enigma and it’s something we love to ponder over,” says Lucinda Carver, a professor of keyboard at USC.

Like scholars before her, Carver speculates that with these variations Beethoven was taking a look back at other composers’ work and his own. In the “Diabelli” Variations, Mozart (in Variation 22), Bach and Handel (in the fugal finale) all make musical appearances. What’s more, Carter says, Beethoven was writing for a newly expanded piano, glorifying in the low end of the keyboard that had just been extended by Viennese piano builders.

With one eye on the past, Beethoven was also looking toward the future. “There are things here that I would have mistaken for music written 40 or 50 years later,” says Carver, citing the harmonically unsettling chorale of Variation 20 and the eerie transition that takes the listener from the dense counterpoint of Variation 32 to the eloquent final variation. “It’s some of the most marvelous music ever written.”

Walsh says that after performances of “33 Variations,” she has talked with theatergoers not too familiar with classical music who have become absolute fans of Beethoven’s “Diabelli.” Packaging the variations with the play’s human drama, she says, makes the music a little easier to understand.

Purists might object to how the play breaks up the variations and shuffles the order a bit. Nine of the “Diabelli” variations are not heard at all. (For those wanting to hear an uninterrupted performance of the “Diabelli” Variations, pianist Peter Serkin performs them in a recital Tuesday at Santa Barbara’s Lobero Theatre.)

Walsh answers the critics: “When you see and hear the play, [playwright Kaufman] has created an alternative aesthetic experience using the music. I’m convinced by it. It has its own narrative now.”

Walsh isn’t certain that the “Diabelli” Variations will find as many fans as Bach’s “Goldberg.” “I think what the work lacks, compared with the ‘Goldberg,’ is warmth,” she says.

Since the play opened, her own relationship to the “Diabelli” Variations has changed.

“Every experience I have with this piece is enhancing how I feel about the music and how I feel about Beethoven,” she says. “It’s a part of me now. And that’s a great feeling.”