Bemusement and unlikeliness in Beethoven’s Diabelli variations

Were we to walk in on a performance of the Diabelli Variations as the ninth variation comes to its melodramatic end and the pianissimo figures that open the tenth variation start trickling down the keyboard, we would not be too far off if guessing that what we hear is a transcription of a finale to an act of an opera buffa, and not a set of variations for solo piano, as the rapidly descending octaves in the left hand are so reminiscent of a ha-ha sung by a comic character that they would not be out of place in Don Pasquale. But if it is a finale to something, what is it a finale to? 

Out of the thirty-three variations, the first ten constitute what would be the first “movement” of the work, not least because the eleventh variation begins with a near-repetition of the opening figure of Diabelli’s theme. But how does the tenth variation sum up the musical content of the previous nine? 

In most variation cycles, the development of the variations is either linear (as in the Arietta from Beethoven’s sonata Op. 111), or sporadic, with variations swiftly changing character (as in Schumann’s Études Symphoniques). But neither is the case in the Diabelli Variations. Throughout the whole work, Beethoven interweaves many different threads, each of which follows its own plot with its own development. Roughly speaking, these threads fall into three categories: the satirical thread, which begins with the ironically boisterous march that follows Diabelli’s naïve and simple waltz; the dancelike thread, which builds on Diabelli’s waltz rather than mock it, as heard in the organic development of variations two to five; and the polyphonic thread, where Beethoven explores different ways of writing in “learned style”—from the most simple imitative writing to the colossal double fugue towards the end. Beethoven drifts between one thread and the other, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes abruptly. But no matter how Beethoven moves between different threads, whenever we hear a variation return to any one thread, we already have a sense of familiarity, just like we have while reading a novel with different plot lines. And like in a Dickens novel, where all plot lines eventually come together, in Beethoven’s world, the three often contradictory threads intersect in the most fascinating and unexpected ways. And that is exactly what happens in the fleeting tenth variation. Throughout its brief duration, its rhythm resembles a dance. A dance gone way out of control, but nonetheless a dance. On top of these rhythmic figures, occasional four-part counterpoint sneaks in when it is least expected. And as for the satirical thread? Satire and irony are imbued into the buffa character of this variation. But whereas in the aforementioned first and ninth variations, the satirical thread has parody and mockery at heart, in the finale to the first section of this monumental work, all characters in Beethoven’s imaginary stage gather together and simply comment on the unlikeliness of the situation in typically Beethovian bemusement. Next week’s entry will also deal with bemusement in the context of the Diabelli Variations, but that of the audience rather than  that of the characters on stage. 

Here is a performance of the end of the ninth variation (for the sake of continuity) and of the tenth variation:

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