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

8 Comments »

  1. I have no desire to try to convince you that you should like the Diabelli Variations. In fact, it’s impossible to do so, to “change” someone’s mind. And that’s not a problem – we all have different tastes in music, it’s a subjective enterprise. Some pieces will speak to particular individuals and not others. For example, my favorite Beethoven Symphony (if I were forced to choose one) is the third, not the ninth. I recognize the ground-breaking nature of Beethoven’s final symphony, but it doesn’t capture my affection in the same way. And while I find the 32nd piano sonata Op. 111 by Beethoven exhilarating, my actual favorite is #27, op. 90.

    Similarly, my favorite Schubert symphony is the fifth the not the ninth. Also, while I enjoy Schubert’s B flat sonata, my heart is really with the “little” A major. I could continue with other examples, but I hope my point is clear: In short, you’re allowed your opinions and likes and dislikes without apology.

    I would take exception, though, with your denigration of the piece as “trivial” or unworthy. It’s fine not to like the Diabelli Variations (along with any other piece of music), but there’s no need to shame those of us who do like the piece by implication.

    Comment by Don Hulbert — June 23, 2019 @ 5:09 pm

  2. Pianists Alfred Brendel and Daniel Shapiro, both of whom performed/recorded all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, have written some wonderful notes on this subject. Check them out if you seek to understand this wonderful piece more deeply!

    Comment by Jonathan Partery — April 6, 2019 @ 8:53 pm

  3. I have a friend with whom I have an informal music club. We pick a piece, listen, and discuss it. Last week it was the Diabelli Variations. We came to the same conclusion. To summarize it, I wrote the following comment on YouTube:

    “I *like* this piece. The rarefied passage leading into the last variation with Eb->augmented->Eb->augmented->­e->C is pretty much unforgettable (I lol’d at the proto-Schnittke-ism).
    “But I can’t describe it as ‘deep’, and it bothers me that cultured musicians, including many of my former teachers, call it stuff like ‘the greatest piano piece of all time’. I think that is just insane (and sanctimonious intellectual dogma).
    “I think it’s just basically a bunch of exercises in his ‘awkward’ style.”

    That comment was subsequently down-voted to the point where it got hidden as having “received too many negative votes”.

    The one comment written in response was “Sounds like you had pretty good teachers,” which I found unbelievably pompous. Everybody else was vomiting the usual platitudes, mostly some variant of “Beethoven is compose pure beauty [sic].”

    There are a lot of pieces, composers, performers, and even performances which are part of the Catechism of Classical Music Taste and Discretion. Try saying something negative about Chopin, or Boulez the conductor, or Die Meistersinger, or early Bach. It’s like, you’ve fallen from grace and now you have one chance to reverse your barbarous heresy before you self-immolate to a crowd of jeering conservatory students in an auto-da-fe of art appreciation.

    No thank you.

    Comment by Shlomo — June 17, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

    • Why is it “pompous intellectual dogma” to hold the variations in such high regard? Don’t you think that some other people might actually hear something magical in this work that you don’t?

      I don’t understand why it is necessary to be so contemptuous of the views of other people, especially when the only reason seems to be differing musical taste.

      Comment by John S — September 24, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

  4. Franchement, on s’en fout que vous n’aimiez pas les Diabellis !!!

    Ahh ces gens qui se croient obligés d’étaler leur état d’âme sur le Net …

    Comment by stekovic — December 12, 2011 @ 2:24 am

    • Bonjour Stekovic,
      Merci d’avoir lu ce que j’ai écrit and puis d’avoir répondu, malgre l’air desagreable de votre reponse.
      Franchement, comme vous dites, je ne me sens pas oblige de dire or d’ecrire rien, n’importe ou.
      Le but d’un blog c’est simplement d’offrir mon avis and puis de lire la réponse si quelqu’un répond .
      J’ai simplement dit que je prefere beaucoup ses sonates aux Diabellis. Que vous ne soyez pas d’accord m’importe peu. Il y en a assez de beauté beethovenienne dans les sonates et les Diabellis pour satisfaire nous deux malgré nos différences.
      J’espere que vous pouvez peut-être trouver un autre poste de mon blog avec lequel vous serez d’accord. Apres tout, il y en a 864.
      A bientôt,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 12, 2011 @ 10:11 am

  5. Read Maynard Solomon’s ‘Late Beethoven’ and stop writing such foolish things before informing yourself.

    Comment by Daniel B — October 31, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    • Hi Daniel,
      Thanks for reading and writing.
      I have read Maynard Solomon’s extremely valuable and insightful book and reviewed it very positively elsewhere when it came out.
      But it isn’t gospel, at least not to me.
      I understand exactly what I am saying.
      I admire the Diabelli Variations and periodically listen to them.
      But I just don’t like them all that much and still think they are generally overrated (I’ll take Bach’s Goldbergs anytime), and I would still prefer to hear any number of Beethoven’s piano sonatas instead of them.
      Perhaps that is foolish to you, but others have agreed with me.
      In any case, my own opinion will hardly undercut their historical or aesthetic importance.
      Or your enjoyment of them, so enjoy away!
      And you still won’t brook any dissent or disagreement, I suspect.
      Happily, there is room enough for both of us.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 31, 2010 @ 2:47 pm


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