Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C major Op.120

Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)
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Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (b. 1770 - d. 1827)

Performance date: 01/07/2017

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1770-1827

Duration: 00:49:20

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation: pf

Instrumentation Category:Solo

Thirty-three Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli in C major Op.120

compositional process was far from straightforward. Some time in
April 1819 Diabelli issued his invitation to all the major composers
in Vienna to compose a variation on a waltz he had written. As
Beethoven disliked collaborative ventures, he offered to write a set
of variations instead. He finally delivered the finished work four
years later. In this period he also wrote the Missa Solemnis, the
last three piano sonatas, some bagatelles and other minor works as
well as starting work on the Ninth Symphony. The first draft of 23
variations was done in the summer of 1819 but he then turned to the
Mass which was originally planned for Archduke Rudolf’s coronation in
1820 (he eventually received his manuscript score three years too
late!). The Mass was itself interrupted by the last three piano
sonatas. He finally started on the Variations again in February 1823
after pressure from Diabelli and finished it by 30 April.

present here to the world Variations of no ordinary type, but a great
and important masterpiece worthy to be ranked with the imperishable
creations of the old Classics…more interesting from the fact that
it is elicited from a theme which no one would otherwise have
supposed capable of a working-out of that character…All these
variations…will entitle the work to a place beside Sebastian Bach’s
masterpiece in the same form.

So wrote Diabelli in his introduction to the work and his point that
his waltz theme seemed an unlikely starting point for such a major
work was a good one. Beethoven had already demonstrated in both his
youthful improvisations and his compositions his staggering ability
to create great art out of nothing and these Variations are the
supreme example of this skill. The reference to the Goldberg
Variations is of particular interest as there is no other hard
evidence that Beethoven was consciously trying to emulate Bach’s

waltz is a cheerful and lively little ditty. When you hear it
bouncing along for less than a minute, it is hard to believe that so
much can be developed from such a beginning. Almost every variation
has its own tempo mark, different from the preceding one. This
creates the feeling of variety although most of the variations are in
3/4 time like the waltz. However towards the end there are an
increasing number of other time signatures. In every variation
Beethoven takes one or more motifs from the waltz’s melody and
develops it intensively, but this means the main contours of the
theme itself are almost completely ignored and the motifs that are
being developed are not easy to recognise. Beethoven seems to have
recognised this as when he returned to the work in 1823 he inserted
new variations that recall the melodic shape of the original theme.

commentators divide the work in four or five large segments like the
movements of a symphony. There is certainly something in this as the
variations begin in a light-hearted way and conclude with the utmost
seriousness, but the diametrically contrasted moods of some of the
central variations make this model hard to sustain. Others take the
Goldberg model and treat it as a succession of linked groups of four
variations in which the speed increases or decreases. Or it can be
seen as a single monumental structure whose content increases
gradually in complexity culminating in the fugal Variation 32. Or you
can pick out a number of prominent pillars like the first, sixth,
fourteenth, twentieth, twenty fourth and thirty second around which
other variations are grouped. Perhaps the simplest approach is to see
the series as contrasting miniatures each throwing new light on the
theme, but you will undoubtedly become aware that there is an overall
vision holding the whole edifice in place.

also ranges over an extraordinarily wide spectrum of human emotions.
The first Variation is surely mocking just as Variations 13 & 15
undoubtedly make fun of the theme, while in Variation 22 he manages
to find a connection with Leporello’s Notte
e giorno faticar
Don Giovanni. As he jumps from one variation to the next you get a
picture of what it must have been like watching Beethoven improvise
at his instrument, as he works this way and that through the
possibilities of the given theme, mocking, witty, tender, clever,
virtuosic, serious, profound, transcendent. There is this feeling of
keep-up-with-me-if-you-can and it is probably counter to the spirit
of the work to follow it with a score. The individual variations do
not really need signposting except to point out that with the first
fugue in Variation 24, the work takes on a new intensity as we
approach the final quarter. The Variations 29-31 are all in C minor
and explore a profundity that the original theme never even
considered. The intricate double fugue of Variation 32 is the
crowning glory of the work with the concluding Tempo
di Minuetto
an ethereal transformation as epilogue. Diabelli, like us, was
clearly overwhelmed.