Variations on a Waltz: The Diabelli Project

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

In early 1819, the well-known composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli (1781-1858), sent a 32-bar waltz to the most reputable composers of the Austrian Empire, together with an invitation to submit their variations for publication as a collaborative collection.

Among those who responded to the call were Czerny, Hummel, Moscheles, Schubert, and the eleven-year-old Franz Liszt, and from their contributions Diabelli was able to assemble a set of 50 Variations on his theme.

We only know for sure of one composer who explicitly declined Diabelli’s invitation to collaborate: Beethoven. It remains unclear why he did not want to participate directly, but he nevertheless composed his own monumental set of 33 Variations, not directly for Diabelli but exploring alternative avenues of publication.

Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz Op.120 quickly established itself not only as one of his most important keyboard works, but one of the pinnacle summits of the entire classical piano repertoire, entirely overshadowing the rest of the project.

Delivered for the recent Beethoven 250 anniversary year, Mario Aschauer’s landmark new scholarly performing edition of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations is an essential score for serious students of the work, published by Bärenreiter, BA 9657.

Perhaps even more interestingly however, Bärenreiter have also brought us their edition BA 9656, which includes Beethoven’s masterpiece together with Aschauer’s new edition of the 50 Variations on a Waltz composed by his contemporaries in response to Diabelli’s call.

Let’s take a closer look at this ambitious and exciting publication…

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz Op.120 have often invited comparison with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, each work being an epic cycle that takes about an hour to perform, situated at the apex of their respective composers’ oeuvre (in compositional technique if not necessarily in popularity).

The Diabelli Variations have been described by concert artist Alfred Brendel as “the greatest of all piano works”; analysing the cycle, Brendel outlines Beethoven’s particular genius as it’s displayed here:

“The theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted.”

Alfred Brendel On Music (Collected Essays)

Aschauer’s Preface to the new edition (15 pages in German, plus 14 for the English translation) chart the genesis of the work, along with the range of sources available to the editor today. There’s an incredible depth of scholarship here for those who really want to dig into the early history of the music.

The Preface also includes 6 pages dedicated to Notes on Performance Practice (perhaps more essential reading for players), covering historical considerations, legato, pedalling, articulation, accents, dynamics, embellishments, tempo and tempo modification. There’s much here which can of course equally be applied when approaching Beethoven’s other late piano works.

The score, in Bärenreiter’s crystal clear house style, is beautifully presented. Occasional annotations and alternative readings appear in a faint grey text alongside the main score for the performer’s ease, and the publisher has gone to extra lengths to avoid awkward page turns within variations.

It’s worth mentioned that the notation throughout is considerably more spaciously presented than in the Felix Loy (Henle Verlag) edition that I have previously reviewed here. True to Bärenreiter’s convention, however, no editorial fingering is provided in this new edition from Aschauer.

Completing the publication, the detailed Critical Commentary is 14 pages, English only. The book itself is printed on 96 high-quality cream pages and enjoys Bärenreiter’s ever-impressive binding.

Should we conclude here, I could recommend this edition without reservation. But there’s more…

50 Variations on a Waltz

Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a Waltz were eventually published by Diabelli as Fatherlandish Union of Artists Part I, followed by a Part II which fulfilled his vision for 50 Variations composed by “Vienna’s most excellent composers and virtuosos”.

These are now published together for the first time in one edition, with Part II actually also appearing in an urtext edition for the very first time.

The edition BA 9656 is thus a more weighty proposition; with 216 pages it matches the scale of one of the three Complete Sonatas volumes that also appeared in time for the Beethoven 250 celebrations, reviewed here.

Aschauer has again based his musical text on a meticulous study of the sources and as in the Beethoven-only edition, relevant discrepancies between the main sources are presented in light grey print.

This is largely unknown music, and for the most part written by composers whose names have otherwise been rather lost in the mists of time. As such it makes for some fascinating study, dishing up some exquisite and highly inventive variations that range in length from one page to eight.

Resisting both the urge to jump down the rabbit hole, and my unfortunate tendency to give away spoilers, suffice to say that this compendium of invention will delight fans of the music of the high classical Viennese period.

I can reveal however that the youngster Liszt’s single page of broken chord figurations does little to foreshadow the glories to come, and pales beside many of the unexpected delights hidden elsewhere here!

As for the publication, as sumptuous as expected (and surprisingly inexpensive), both Preface and Critical Commentary are expanded to include all the material found in BA 9657 as well as comments on the Part II variations.

For further information, and Aschauer’s performance on fortepiano of one of the variations, check this promotional video:

The Final Word

Performers looking for an affordable, beautifully presented and meticulously edited score of the Beethoven Diabelli Variations will not go wrong picking up Bärenreiter’s BA 9657, while those who want to dig deeper into the music of Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century will find much to fascinate and enjoy in the larger BA 9656 edition.

In both cases, these publications are truly impeccable scores.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.