The Well-Tempered Ear

Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations are overblown, second-rate music

September 21, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

I love the piano, both playing and listening to it.

So I remain stumped: Why are Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations considered so great?Beethoven

They come to mind right now because I just heard a fine live performance of them on “Sunday Afternoon Live from the Chazen” (the weekly live chamber music program on Wisconsin Public Radio) with pianist Eugene Alcalay, a Romanian-born protégé of Leonard Bernstein who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

And I have also listened to an award-winning new recording by Stephen Kovacevich who launched his international career with a recording of the Diabelli’s some 30 years ago and then recently recorded them again for Onyx Records, his new home after Angel-EMI let him go.

Anyway, to me the Diabelli’s still sound like much ado about nothing.

Beethoven had it right at the beginning: the waltz theme that the music publisher Anton Diabelli (below right) distributed to composers is indeed trivial. And so is the mammoth set of variations he composed on that waltz – mammothly trivial, true, but trivial all the same.Anton Diabelli

I mean, in about the same time it takes to perform the Diabelli’s or to listen to them, you could play or listen to two of the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven. And THAT is a project infinitely more rewarding spiritually and musically.

Some critics compare the Diabelli’s to J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations — but length and technical virtuosity are the only basis I can hear. The Bach is great music; the Beethoven, certainly a virtuosic tour-de-force, has its great moments (see the first page of the score, below right), but overall I find it not great music but tedious and choppy.Diabelli music

So, I ask:

Is there something I’m missing about the Diabelli variations?

Can someone explain to me why the Diabelli’s are great music and worth the bother of learning or listening?

Or do many of you share my view that this particular Beethoven is realty pretty second-rate compared to Ludwig’s genuine masterpieces.

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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