Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and the effect of physicality

Many of our most beloved works are experienced by listeners and musicians on emotional and mental levels. The two are not in the least contradictory, and we can admire one work for its moving melodiousness and another for its architectural qualities. How often, though, are we physically enthralled by a work of music? Are there any composers whom we experience on a visual and physical level, as we observe the action taking place on stage?

The answer is yes. In my opinion, the father of musical physicality was Haydn. Certain works of his are meant to be experienced as theater pieces that have the bewilderment of the audience embedded in the score. In his Fantasia in C for piano, we are to stare at the pianist as he holds the indefinitely long fermatas and wonder when the music will reemerge from the long pauses. Musically speaking, scratching one’s head at that point wouldn’t be too much out of place. In his Joke quartet, it’s appropriate to laugh when the last movement disintegrates without being able to come to a proper ending, as the theme awkwardly repeats itself like a broken record. Several of Haydn’s symphonies, most notably the Farewell, also have such qualities, which tend to be overlooked nowadays. These are works that can be fully experienced only in a live performance, with the music coming in through all the senses. 

Haydn’s musical heir is of course Beethoven. I am inclined to believe that even if Beethoven had not taken lessons from Haydn, his music would still carry the mark of Haydnesque aesthetics and humor. A great many of the attributes we associate with Beethoven have their roots in Haydn. Beethoven’s piano music was always somewhat physical, even as early as the Op. 2 sonatas and their (then uncharacteristic) outbursts of fortissimo. Later, this physicality was emboldened in the middle period in works such as the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, cementing our notion of the “furious Beethoven.” One needs only to compare Beethoven’s piano output to that of Schubert to see the difference in physicality. Yet, as bodily-inclined and Haydn-influenced as Beethoven was, he didn’t quite venture into the territory of the Joke quartet and its physicality, that is, until the 13th of the Diabelli variations.

Last week I mentioned the operatic nature of the tenth variation. In the 13th variation, drama, raw and pure, comes to the forefront. Rests make up the main “bulk” of the phrases, with intermittent dotted rhythmic figures that eventually “push away” the rests. But when the rests dominate the music and the dotted figures are but brusque interjections, the pervading question for the audience is: How will the pianist play the rests? Will he leave the hands on the keyboard, implying that the music is about to continue, or take them off the keyboard, suggesting comic uncertainty? On the face of it, the rests are silent, but when the music falls silent, the impending physical and visual question takes its place. Thus, the dramatic effect of this variation is twofold: on one level we see the pianist struggle with the most awkward of situations on stage, extended silence, and on the other, in the absence of a proper melodic line, we experience a jousting match being played out between silence and rhythm. The pauses in this variation are not mere silence: they are filled with the bewilderment and bemusement of the audience, so much so that it would be safe to say that this variation is a piece of collaborative work between the pianist and the audience, with the pianist playing the rhythm and the audience the pauses. Given that the next variation is a solecism and a contradiction, a funeral march but in C major, could it be that in variation 13, Beethoven has turned the pianist himself into a buffa character who cannot help but misstep, perhaps a sort of Figaro?

Read Prof. William Kinderman’s comments on variation 13 in this related blog.

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