Beethoven’s “Tarnhelm” variation

We have seen how Grieg formed an entire harmonic vernacular for a short piece of music, Klokkeklang (Bells), and how a performance of this piece might be informed by these peculiar characteristics. Here I examine how Beethoven does something not dissimilar in his 20th Diabelli variation. The many differences between Klokkeklang and the Diabelli Variations need not be elaborated upon, but when we “scratch beneath the surface,” we see that they have a thing or two in common. 

We know that in a great many of his works, Beethoven broke the boundaries of harmonic writing. This is especially pronounced in later works such as the Große Fuge, but can be seen already in the earlier ones. Because of our perception of Beethoven and of the composers who came before and after him, we expect Beethoven to break some tonal boundaries when we listen to his music. So is the 20th Diabelli variation different, and if yes, why? 

For the most part, when Beethoven ventures outside the confines of the harmonic tradition he inherited, he still nods in its direction, and gives the audience a “compass,” with which they can locate a tonal center—a possible tonic. Not here, though. After hovering around the conventional tonic and dominant harmonies, Beethoven subtly drifts away into tonal no man’s land for a few bars that can seem like an eternity, just to cadence in the previously expected dominant. And when he does meet our expectations, we don’t feel relieved, the way we should in a work of music written in the 1820s. These few bars have knocked us off our balance to the point that even the dominant sounds foreign.  But what else, other than the harmony, is going on in the music? Not unlike Grieg, who deprives us of his enchanting melodies in Klokkeklang, Beethoven leaves the harmonies bare, depriving them of a melody or of rhythmic motion (such as found in the beginning of the Waldstein sonata, where the energetic repetition of the eighth notes is enough to propel the music).

What are we left with, then? With Beethoven’s peculiar harmonies and a sound-world hitherto unheard, drawing from the depths of the keyboard’s register and reluctant to escape it. This is quite a far cry from the dynamic, hyperactive, and in the case of the Diabelli Variations, physical Beethoven we are used to hearing and playing. So what can we take into consideration when performing this variation? This is a question that has been occupying me for quite a while, and fascinates me every time I prepare this work. Whereas I often look to the world of Haydn and Mozart when contemplating Beethoven, in the 20th variation, I prefer to look to the post-Beethoven musical world, and the first piece that comes to mind is Klokkeklang. But I actually prefer to look outside the realm of piano writing, and imagine the impossible scenario of Beethoven emulating the sound of a brass section in a work written after his time. This, of course, gives us a wide range of examples to draw from. We have moments from Berlioz’s Grande messe de morts (astonishingly, written only a mere decade after Beethoven’s death), as well as many works of later symphonic composers. But the brass section moment I always think of is the Tarnhelm (a magic helmet) motif from the Ring cycle. It may be entirely personal, but I make this connection for two reasons. First, the sound-worlds, harmonic timbre, and the register are strikingly similar. But then, when I think about how the Tarnhelm has the power to transform things (Alberich into a toad, Siegfried into Gunther), I am reminded that Beethoven, Wagner’s greatest influence, named the Diabelli Variations Veränderungen (transformations) and not “variations.” This, in turn, presents a most fascinating question for performers and listeners alike—given that this variation stands at a structural focal point of the piece (bringing what would have been the second “section” of the work to a close), does it also act as a catalyst for the rest of the Diabelli Variations? And so, through a consideration of nomenclature, this detour from Beethoven’s time to the 1870s brings us right back into the heart of the Diabelli Transformations…

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