Where There’s a Waltz There’s a Way: Exploring the Secrets of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations

By: Robin Wallace (School of Music, Baylor University) //

Ludwig van Beethoven receives a waltz by Anton Diabelli in early 1819, about a year after getting his new Broadwood piano and well into the final decline of his hearing. The piece initially seems unpromising to him, but it feels amazing on this new instrument, whose keys have unprecedented tactile depth and whose frame is uncommonly reactive to vibration across its width. In the first eight measures the melody plunges three and a half octaves into the bass, and the pattern of sequences that follows culminates in a stretch covering three quarters of the keyboard. He realizes that this is material that will allow his sense of touch to lead him in novel directions.

The theme from Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” Op. 120, played by Thomas Beghin on a reproduction of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano.

Thirty-three variations later, he has produced one of the most celebrated works in the keyboard repertory, even if the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, are not as widely performed as many of his other most famous works. To many listeners, they seem austere, inaccessible: an exercise in extracting as much ingenuity as possible out of material that remains unsuited to the task. Artur Schnabel, one of the great Beethoven interpreters of the early 20th century, once described performing the work and being struck by the idea that he was the only person in the house who was enjoying himself.

But what if we are simply misunderstanding what Beethoven was up to in this work? Schnabel’s comment can be taken to imply that this work is too intellectual and abstract for most listeners’ taste. But it also reveals a secret that pianists will recognize: the Diabelli Variations are fun to play, because they are physically exciting and full of delicious surprises. If we grasp what Beethoven was doing, we can recover that sense of fun as listeners as well, and also learn to understand why Beethoven was so enthralled with the gift that an English piano manufacturer had sent him.


A duplicate of Beethoven’s Broadwood piano built by Chris Maene, photographed at his workshop in Ruiselede, Belgium. The lid has been removed in order to allow for different prototypes of the hearing machine to be installed. We know that Matthäus Andreas Stein, who built the original hearing machine, must have done the same with Beethoven’s instrument.

When he received the Broadwood—an instrument he would treasure for the rest of his life and carry with him through his many moves—Beethoven was completing the longest and most complicated piano sonata he had ever written: the epochal “Hammerklavier,” Op. 106. As Tom Beghin has recently demonstrated, the fugue that concludes that work reflects the Broadwood’s distinctive range, which is lacking the highest notes available on contemporary Viennese instruments but includes extra notes in the bass. Those low notes were not used in the first three movements, suggesting that the piano on which Beethoven was working previously did not have them. Thus, paradoxically, the “Hammerklavier” cannot be played in its entirety either on the Broadwood or on many Viennese pianos of Beethoven’s time, since the former does not have the highest notes necessary to play the first three movements, while the latter are missing the low notes necessary to play the fugue. It would take a six-and-a-half-octave piano, like those that became more common in the 1820s, to play the completed work. Beethoven doesn’t seem to have cared. What mattered was the instrument he was working with at any particular time. In a recently released recording titled Inside the Hearing Machine, Tom demonstrates for the first time what the last three Beethoven sonatas (Opp. 109, 110, and 111) sound like on a replica of the instrument for which they were written, including an approximation of the resonator that Beethoven had built in order to give an assist to his failing ears.

This unique recording makes it clear how well suited these final sonatas are to the Broadwood’s distinctive characteristics. Its deep keys, which encourage a different kind of playing than Beethoven was accustomed to, led him to experiment with a new way of treating dissonance, occasionally even allowing dissonances to resolve into each other rather than being succeeded directly by a consonant resolution. Its powerful vibrations, arising from the fact that its sound board, unlike those of contemporary Viennese pianos, was directly connected to its frame, seem to have suggested a whole range of novel effects. This is immediately evident at the very opening of the sonata Op. 109, which combines harp-like preluding with cascading scales and arpeggios that bridge the extremes of the keyboard and appear designed to show off everything the Broadwood can do.

Beethoven did not learn to produce such effects overnight. Before beginning Op. 109 early in 1820, he had been hard at work on Diabelli’s curious little waltz, and it taught his fingers what to expect from his new instrument. After completing the last three sonatas, he then returned to the variations in 1822-23, adding ten new variations and refining the previous ones. The Diabelli Variations thus encircle the final sonatas; as William Kinderman has shown, the final coda contains a deliberate reference to the Arietta movement—also a set of variations—with which Op. 111 had ended. Beethoven seems not to have known how to let go.

Let us suppose, though, that what fed Beethoven’s lingering preoccupation with this extended variation set was the sheer physical pleasure of letting his fingers explore the Broadwood, even as he continued to sink further and further into deafness. This is not to negate the importance of the written sketches for the work, which have been extensively explored by Kinderman and others (some of this work is discussed in the article linked above), and which also record a physical process: the act of experimenting, sometimes at length, with the shape of the material in written form. It is to suggest, though, that in his last years Beethoven remained more firmly anchored to the keyboard than ever, using it as a source of ideas that increasingly reflected the way the notes felt beneath his fingers.

Watch, for example, a performance by pianist Gavin Arturo Gamboa of Variations 3 and 4, which were actually the first two Beethoven drafted.  

Arturo Gamboa plays the Diabelli Variations on a modern piano, beginning at 4:32 with Variation 3; Variation 4 ends at 7:20.

In these variations’ final forms, Beethoven shows an unprecedented determination to move thematic material between the hands and registers, or simply to jump from one part of the keyboard to another with complicated repeated patterns. It is as though he took the theme’s two most distinctive tactile features—the change of registers at the beginning and the series of sequences that follows it—and combined them, relentlessly refusing to stay put. (A comical exception is at 5:24 ff. in Variation 3, where Beethoven simply repeats the same three notes in the left hand eight times in a row against a held chord in the right hand.) He had never done anything quite like this in any of his previous sets of variations, and this time he was clearly letting his fingers take the lead.

As can be seen in the rest of the Gamboa video above, similar instances occur so frequently in the remaining variations that it would be tedious to enumerate them; it is enough simply to watch the gymnastics that the pianist’s hands perform. Another unprecedented use of the keyboard, though, emerges in Variation 20 (33:00–35:50), which consists primarily of a long string of harmonically unstable chords in a very slow tempo. For almost three minutes, time seems suspended as nearly every dotted half-note Andante chord either resolves into another dissonance or fails to resolve at all.

 I have listened to several recordings of this piece on Viennese fortepianos, like this one by Andreas Staier:   

Andreas Steier plays the Diabelli Variations on a reproduction of a Viennese piano from Beethoven’s day, beginning at 27:49 with Variation 20, which ends at 30:10.

On this kind of instrument, this variation never seems to work. The chords lack depth and resonance, and only serve to remind us that the action of the Viennese piano served to facilitate the quick alternation of dissonance and consonance. Prolonging and sustaining dissonance was not what they were made for. At 28:24 ff. Staier is forced to roll the chords in the second half of each measure in order to simulate the effect Beethoven seems to have wanted. He does this again at 29:13 when a consonant chord in the first half of the measure is followed by a short dissonant one on the beat that should bring the resolution, completely inverting the typical Viennese listener’s and pianist’s expectations. On the Broadwood, by contrast, Beethoven’s arms and fingers sank into the keys and stayed there, giving passages like these an eerie resonance that Beethoven must have felt even if he couldn’t hear it.

The most stunning demonstration of touch effects in the entire work can perhaps be found in Variation 14. Understandably, most pianists avoid the extremity of Beethoven’s dynamic markings in this variation, since the music seems to call for some shading and nuance that the composer failed to provide. Beethoven was so deliberate, however, in marking crescendos here when he wanted them that it is fair to assume that when he wrote a ƒp on a chord with no surrounding crescendo or diminuendo, he wanted that chord to stand out starkly from the surrounding piano dynamic level. In the recording below, I have tried to demonstrate the significance of this effect.

The author plays Diabelli Variation 14 on a modern piano.

Notice how the downbeat chord at 0:44 receives a dynamic emphasis that contradicts the harmonic syntax; this is a dominant seventh chord that doesn’t resolve, but it simply followed by another dominant chord without the seventh. The upbeat chord that precedes it, meanwhile, is identical except for the dynamic level. When this passage is played as Beethoven wrote it, the central chord emerges as what might be called a dynamic dissonance: a moment of felt emphasis preceded and followed by felt relaxation, but with no harmonic change to accompany it. Later Beethoven plays with our expectations in the opposite direction; a completely predictable resolution of a forte dissonance at 1:42 to a piano is followed by a sustained piano dynamic level as the succession of dissonance and consonance continues, unaided by any dynamic change. On the recording I have resisted the temptation to inflect this passage with dynamics, since I believe the sustained piano was meant to produce a prolonged feeling of relaxation before the powerful crescendo with which the variation concludes.

The Diabelli Variations, in short, challenge us not just to rehear traditional musical expectations, but to feel the music physically just as Beethoven did while his ears increasingly failed him. Experiencing this marvelous work today, we can get an inkling not only of what it meant to Beethoven to be a deaf musician, but also of why deafness, far from stopping him, revealed to him new wellsprings of musical creativity.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why was Diabelli’s waltz uniquely suited to the problems that Beethoven faced as a deaf composer? How did his new Broadwood piano help him to capitalize on these advantages?
  2. What does it mean to say that music appeals to all the senses: not just hearing, but touch and sight as well? Can smell and taste also help us to understand music? If so, how and in what ways? (For example, might we come to associate a favorite piece of music with a favorite meal?)
  3. How does the view of Beethoven as a deaf composer presented in this article differ from the way his deafness is usually presented in popular culture and even in much scholarship on the composer?

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