Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and the “three periods” fallacy

Many composers are viewed through the lens of their creative periods, but none more so than Beethoven. The concept of his “three periods” has become an inescapable paradigm for musicians and listeners alike, so much so that whenever we hear a work by Beethoven, we rush, even if subconsciously, to assign a period label to it—early, middle, or late. Of course the concept of the three periods is justified, but I still think it is somewhat misleading, especially if we insist on attaching such a label to any and every work of Beethoven we hear. Naturally, Beethoven’s writing underwent transformations in the course of his creative years, but many underlying conceptual and aesthetic issues in his music are present across all periods of his oeuvre. Consider variations 15-18 of the Diabelli Variations.

These four variations present a panoramic view of what we think of as Beethoven’s three periods—a compendium of Beethoven, if you will. Variation 15, coming out of the wonderfully ironic funeral march in major, is marked presto scherzando. Its character fully lives up to its marking, jovially going back and forth between registers and articulations. Were one to hear it on its own, ascribing it to early Beethoven would be a safe guess. Its Haydnesque character and swift changes in articulation are reminiscent of many works of Beethoven’s early period. When thinking of which works this variation is reminiscent of, pieces in the same key of C major come to mind: the Op. 2/3 sonata and the second bagatelle from the Op. 33 cycle. The last movement of the first concerto also fits well into this group. 

Our generally flawed collective notion of Beethoven is heavily influenced by the heroic and impassioned works of the middle period, in particular the ones in the Op. 50s region, such as the Eroica symphony and the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas. These great works abound with pathos, conflict, and triumph. I believe that these are by no means Beethoven’s defining characteristics overall, but they are definitely central to his musical output. And what better way to describe triumph and perseverance than variations 16 and 17? In these two connected variations, Beethoven manages to paint a scene of conflict, turmoil, and triumph against all odds, even as he does not quite stray from C major. In character, it is almost as if the last movement of the Appassionata has been transposed into major. Last week, I wrote about the physicality of Beethoven’s piano output, which was present in his early works, emboldened in the middle period and pushed into new Haydnesque territories in the 13th variation. Precisely the same emboldened physicality of the middle period we find in variations 16 and 17, where one is meant to feel, if not to observe, the “friction” of the pianist against the instrument. 

The term “late Beethoven,” with all the baggage it amassed over the years, has become a somewhat dangerous to use. It is bandied around gratuitously, and has ended up implying a sort of demarcating line, separating the “late works” from the rest of Beethoven’s output. Misguided as this notion is, there are some attributes that apply specifically to the late works. For me, besides some differences from the earlier works in the rhetorical function of various forms, such as fugal writing, a key attribute of late Beethoven is the calling into question of many ingrained norms and conventions. We are used to dancelike music being more or less tonally stable and simple, we are used to scherzo movements being in triple time and not in double time, and so on… The 18th variation is a perfect example of Beethoven casting a shadow of doubt on these notions, as it combines the rhythmic simplicity of a dance with harmonic ambiguity uncharacteristic of dance. Thus, Beethoven creates an intoxicating blend of awkwardness and charm. Effects like this, in my opinion, are at the root of the “depth” we refer to when talking about late Beethoven. In the 18th variation, Beethoven daringly ventures into harmonic territories quite foreign to C major, but unlike other variations that are adventurous in character, the 18th maintains its daintiness. Its quizzical character is twofold: it questions the simplicity of the dance, and it also calls the heroism of the two previous variations into question, as if saying “are you quite sure about that…?” 

In these four variations, Beethoven takes us on a “tour” of his musical periods. Is such crossing of his own stylistic boundaries an exclusive feature of his later period, when the composer could write from a retrospective point of view? Absolutely not. Beethoven has a body of work that transcends any notion of epochs, showing that many ideas he dealt with were always present. Take, for example, the last movement of the Op. 18/6 quartet, La malinconia. The introduction to this movement is no less harmonically intrepid than that of the Op. 111 sonata. Or the aforementioned Op. 33 cycle of bagatelles, which at various points subtly foretells many iconic middle-period works, such as the fifth and sixth symphonies and the third piano concerto, and at one point (the minore section of the second bagatelle) is reminiscent of both the Op. 7 and the Hammerklavier sonatas. But the work that perhaps epitomizes Beethoven’s hybrid-ness is itself a hybrid work, the Kakadu variations for piano trio, Op. 121a. Mentioned by Beethoven as early as 1803, having its first manuscript date from 1816, but not being published until 1824 (one year and one opus number after the Diabelli Variations), it bears the marks of all three periods. The effervescent virtuosity of its first few variations recalls some of Beethoven’s very early works, such as the flute trio in the same key of G major; its poignant introduction is reminiscent of the pathos of the middle period; and the understated and mellow wisdom of the last variation echoes that of the ending of the Diabelli Variations (endings that in both cases follow virtuosic penultimate variations). Although the writing of the Kakadu variations was spread over such a long time—at least twenty-one years, only five years less than it took Wagner to write the Ring cycle—it remains wholly organic.  I am not arguing that the notion of Beethoven’s three periods is unsubstantiated. What I wanted to show is that rather than moving entirely from one period to another, Beethoven was perpetually in conversation with his earlier and later selves, constantly finding different idioms to express similar ideas, making the “three periods” concept fluid and not congealed.

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