Friday, March 13, 2009

33 Variations on "33 Variations"

"Jane Fonda and Beethoven -- Together on Broadway." There is no missing that headline in today's Wall Street Journal. The headline goes with Terry Teachout's review of "33 Variations," a drama about Beethoven and a dying woman who is researching the "Diabelli Variations."

Here is the review if you are like me and read everything you can find about Beethoven even if it does involve Jane Fonda.

Remember Beethoven's hot nephew?

Where was I?

I have to confess, I do not have a lot of interest in this play about Beethoven. It's my experience that most people, concocting dramas about musicians, miss the mark. They just don't get it. To get a handle on music, it doesn't take special skills or college degrees but what it takes is time and love. You have to love the music and listen to it for years and years until it gets into your bones, it becomes part of your life and consciousness.

Almost no writers do that. That is why there are so many novels and plays about writers and poets and English teachers. That is what writers know about. They have a handle on that. And if they try to write about music or musicians, there's this disconnect. It is just ... unsatisfying.

Then it's discouraging because I think, OK, now that there's this crummy drama about Beethoven, or whoever, we will not get a good one. It's been done.

Listen to me gripe! I was out too late lastnight, can you tell?

I have not seen "33 Variations" but already, I see a couple of red flags. The one is, as Terry Teachout points out, the "Diabelli Variations" are just too big, deep and wide to be used as a backdrop to some drama. That hints to me that the playwright had a superficial relationship with them.

I do not like when people have a superficial relationship with Beethoven!

Here is another thing and this is just me talking now. Even if this playwright, Moises Kaufman, knew the "Diabelli Variations" inside out, and even if he could create a drama that measured up to them -- which, good luck -- I am not sure that even then I would want to go.

I just don't like the "Diabelli Variations" enough.

I appreciate their greatness, but on an intellectual level. Now, I realize that the more I listen to them, the more I will hear in them. In other words, my relationship with this piece is still evolving. But I appreciate them, so far at least, with my head, not my heart.

For starters, I do not like the name "Diabelli." It sounds like "diabolical." It should not bother me but it does. I bet deep down it bothers other people too. That is Anton Diabelli pictured above, probably holding his waltz.

Which leads me to a bigger problem. The waltz that Diabelli sent around for composers to write variations on, it's a stupid, silly theme. I realize that Beethoven is making a point, writing these towering variations on a silly theme. But for me, the piece as a whole suffers because you don't get that thrill of a magnificent theme behind all the variations. You know what set of Beethoven variations I love? The "Eroica" Variations. (Or the "Prometheus" variations, if you want to be fussy and use the scholarly name.)

In the "Eroica" Variations you get that wonderful theme. And the moment when Beethoven swings into it for the first time, when he lets you hear it, that's a thrill. First he teases you for a couple of pages, giving you the bass line. Then he goes into that beautiful "Eroica" theme and you just want to die, hearing it.

That moment is almost exactly at 3:00 in the link above if you want to hear it. Wow, I love it. I studied this piece myself and learned to play it pretty well and I never, ever got sick of playing that. Just the other day I took the music out and played the first five pages just so I could experience that one moment.

You don't get that in the "Diabelli Variations." That Diabelli theme is so tinny and annoying.

There is one variation I love, love, love. That is when Beethoven takes that dumb theme and turns it into a heartbreaking waltz of his own. That gives you a glimpse of the romantic side of Beethoven you do not always get. Beethoven can be extremely passionate and romantic. He loved women deeply and helplessly and you hear that in this beautiful waltz.

That is Variation VIII. It is at 1:15 in this clip. I wish I had time to shop around through all the "Diabelli" clips on You Tube. There is a bundle of them!

Unfortunately Variation VIII comes early in the "Diabelli Variations" and I spend the rest of the piece regretting that I will not get to hear it again. That is a problem with the piece, I say.

Beethoven should have consulted me.


  1. Will you next be reviewing a book you haven't read?

  2. Aw, c'mon! Diabelli's a nice Italian name. Just like Pennario. Think of him as Tony Di.