BEETHOVEN'S PIANO VARIATIONS




Depiction of Beethoven's
Undocumented Mozart Visit:
Beethoven Improvising at the Piano


Who of us every has had the opportunity to hear a "classical" pianist improvise freely?

Our--probably unanimously--negative reply to this question might serve as "proof" for the possibility that free improvisation is no longer considered a vital part of classical music performance.  

What might be the "next thought" that could occur to Beethoven friends? Perhaps we might recall that, already in his Bonn youth, Beethoven delighted his friends, particularly the von Breuning family, with his free improvisations.  

If, on the basis of these two thoughts, we regret that today, we no longer have the opportunity of hearing classical pianists improvising at their instruments readily available to us, and if we might also harbor the futile regret that we, of course, can also not hear Beethoven doing so, we might find consolation in the fact that we can, at least, enjoy the 'next best thing':  Beethoven's piano variations! 

As Hans Schmidt writes in his article on Beethoven's Piano Variations:

"Variationen waren das Erstlingswerk des Elfjährigen und Variationen auch eines der gewaltigsten Werke der Spätzeit, die berühmten Diabelli-Variationen. Die Schlichtheit und Unmittelbarkeit, in der Beethoven in der Ausarbeitung wohlvorbedachter eigener Themen wie auch gängiger Melodien der damaligen Wiener Szenerie zu Werke ging, werden spürbar in jener originellen Antwort, die er auf ein vorgelegtes Werk hin erteilte: „Ihre Variationen zeugen von Anlage, doch setze ich dran aus, daß Sie das Thema verändert haben, warum das? Was der Mensch lieb hat, muß man ihm nicht nehmen; auch heißt das verändern, ehe man noch Variationen gemacht hat.“ . . . Das Klavier war das Instrument seiner Phantasie, die Variation das willkommene Gefäß, die Form"; --

-- Schmidt writes here that variations were the first composition of the eleven-year-old Beethoven and also one of the most powerful of his late works were piano variations, the famous Diabelli Variations.  The simplicity and immediacy with which Beethoven went about the working-out of his well-devised own themes or of other, popular melodies of the Viennese classical music scene, continues Schmidt, becomes apparent in his original reply to a variation work that was presented to him: "Your variations show talent; however, I criticize that you have changed the theme.  Why did you do that?  What man likes, one should not take from him; moreover, this means that you already applied changes before you even started to write your variations." . . . The piano was the instrument of his fantasy, the variation the welcome vessel, the form, concludes Schmidt.

If we consider Schmidt's reference to Beethoven's masterwork the Diabelli-Variations, Op. 120, and if we take the Latin proverb nomen est omen at face value, we might be tempted to believe that the devil is hidden in this late Beethoven masterwork.   How difficult it is to perform them might be judged differently by professional and lay pianists and can hardly be judged by those of us who are either not able to play the piano or who are not able to play the piano well enough, so that we can not make that criterion the basis of our present discussion.     

However, what we can attempt here is to embark on a journey of discovery in order to find out what path Beethoven's development took from his first attempts at composition with his first piano variations to his late masterwork.  Quite naturally, this journey leads us entirely un-diabolically back to his Bonn youth. . . . 

[The menu list to the left offers you access to all stations of our journey.  We wish you a great deal of fun with it!]

[Background Image: Beethoven's Broadwood Piano]