Beethoven's Diabelli Microcosmos
Did Anton Diabelli get lucky despite or because of his overbearing nature? He set out in life with serious intent. Born in Mattsee, near Salzburg, he studied music as a boy with Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael, though his primary training was for the priesthood. At nineteen he moved north to Upper Bavaria to enter the Raitenhasslach monastery. Three years into his theological work political forces within the Hapsburg Empire secularized the Bavarian monasteries, converting them from ecclesiastical to civil entities, shutting them down for the purposes of spiritual introspection. It was a moment of crisis in Diabelli’s young life. He gave up his journey to the priesthood, moved to Vienna, and went into business, first giving lessons in piano and guitar and later joining the Steiner publishing firm as a music editor.
A decade passed; it was 1814. Beethoven had begun publishing some of his work with the Steiner firm, including in the next four years the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, the Op.95 String Quartet, and the best-selling “Wellington’s Victory” among others. Through Steiner, Beethoven first encountered Diabelli, whose nature by age thirty-three was no longer monk-like. Though it may tell us as much about Beethoven as it does about Diabelli, the Great Composer used to routinely refer to Diabelli in correspondence as “Generalprofoss und diabolus Diabelli.” Apparently this was funny to Beethoven because it was so true.
In his late thirties, Diabelli left Steiner and joined his colleague Peter Cappi in founding their own publishing firm, but while this new enterprise got off to a good start, after six years Diabelli was ready to move on again, and left Cappi to continue on his own with the firm Diabelli & Co. Among Diabelli & Co’s first actions was to request Beethoven to write a work, a certain seller, to help firm solidify its place in the marketplace, perhaps something like a “Wellington’s Victory” for the Biedermeier parlor, specifically a work for four-hand piano. Was it a bold affront to the genius and acknowledged master Beethoven, then deep into the metaphysical thicket of his late quartets, to write such drivel as this proposed parlor music? Whatever Beethoven’s response, if any, the project went unrealized.
Diabelli, as was his way, persisted. Upon learning that Beethoven was writing quartets, he commissioned the great man to write a string quartet. Beethoven appears to have cast off a fragment from his on-going quartet excursions to fulfill Diabelli’s commission, but set it aside without making delivery.
Then an idea descended upon Diabelli, The Idea which indirectly won him immortality. He asked several composers in the Hapsburg Empire to write a single variation on one of his own waltz themes, a silly tune, a noodle really. He would publish the collection. Beethoven was among those asked; he declined.
It is an interesting historical document, Diabelli’s famous collective work Vaterländischer Künstlerverein. The first variation, of more than two dozen, is by the young Franz Schubert, whose music Diabelli & Co. would one day champion. Among the other notable names in the history of pianism that are represented are Ignaz Moscheles, Carl Czerny, and a boy, age eleven, here publishing his first work, Franz Liszt.
The Viennese hubbub over Diabelli’s commercial project caught Beethoven’s attention. He began a set of variations on the silly waltz. Sometime during the ensuing two years that he worked on what would become his profound final statement for the piano Beethoven let it be known to Diabelli that he had been following through on the publisher’s initial request to write a waltz variation. One might imagine the chuckle this gave the Master.
Inevitably, Diabolus Diabelli began hounding Beethoven to finish the “variation” and send it to him forthwith. Upon one such entreaty, Beethoven incorporated his response to Diabelli into the work – Variation No.22, in which Beethoven quotes Leporello, servant to the demanding Don Giovanni, complaining of his lot, “Notte a giorno faticar” (Night and day I slave.) This was exactly the sort of thing that made Beethoven laugh.
Well, the rest, to coin a phrase, is history. Beethoven completed his stupendous masterpiece and it was published by Diabelli & Co. as Op.120, 33 Veränderungen (instead of Variationen, as a nod to Bach’s Aria mit 30 Veränderungen, “Goldberg") C-dur über einen Walzer von Anton Diabelli, which is known to us today as Diabelli Variations.
The immense complexity and transcendent sweep of Op.120 is too much for discussion here. Suffice it for now only to recall what Hans von Bülow called it: “The microcosmos of Beethoven’s genius.”
Diabelli postscript. Following Beethoven’s death four years later, Diabelli managed to acquire from the Master’s estate the string quartet fragment he’d written in response to the long ago commission, but set aside. Diabelli rushed it into print under the title “Beethoven’s Last Musical Thought” and had it arranged from string quartet to four-hand piano, perfect for parlor playing. Likely, Beethoven would not have found that amusing.