When one mentions the “Diabelli Variations,” the first thing that comes to mind is of course Beethoven’s monumental set of 33 variations on Anton Diabelli’s simple waltz, in response to his commission to Beethoven for one variation. However, we tend to forget that Schubert was one of the many eminent composers and pianists of the time whom Diabelli asked to contribute ono variation to his project. His input to the anthology was a dainty and elegant variation in C minor (as opposed to Diabelli’s waltz which is in C major, as is Beethoven’s work).
Schubert’s Diabelli variation retains the characteristics and thematic outline of Diabelli’s waltz, but is also immediately recognizable as a work of Schubert. It is melancholy, bordering on sentimental but still not quite, and its dancelike features are beautifully mirrored by the contours of the melody. Two things I find fascinating about this short Schubert Diabelli variation: unlike any of the Beethoven variations, it is actually a waltz; and Schubert’s use of the key of D-flat major as a “comforting haven,” something his variation has in common with Beethoven’s variations.
Beethoven’s 33 variations are of truly encyclopedic proportions, encompassing a great many styles, genres, and moods. But the one genre that Beethoven seems to have circumvented is the waltz, even when writing variations in genres closely related to the waltz—most notably the closing minuet of the work. Perhaps he wanted to highlight just how far he strayed from Diabelli’s original waltz (while still keeping the outline intact), or perhaps he didn’t write a waltz variation simply because it wasn’t a genre he associated himself with. Schubert, on the other hand, wrote in a style that lent itself much more naturally to the waltz.
Yet, Schubert’s little waltz shares something interesting with Beethoven’s variations: unlike Diabelli’s theme, both end up in D-flat major, one semitone above the key of the theme. Many of Beethoven’s variations, especially towards the end of the work, shift to D-flat major in the most “vulnerable” points in the music, when the composer makes a confession of utmost intimacy. Schubert’s waltz, in a manner typical of the composer, gives us a “whiff” of D-flat major, while not actually cadencing there, so that the affect of the key is there, even if the key itself isn’t. And while Beethoven reaches D-flat major only after finding a first “safe haven” in D minor (the supertonic, which is tonally a lot closer to C major) in the earlier variations, Schubert naturally finds himself in D-flat major. For Beethoven it was a typically arduous process, whereas for Schubert it was characteristically natural.
Therefore, the question that arises to my mind is: What would Schubert’s 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli have sounded like?