Diabelli Variations

I’m sort of a theme & variations junkie.  From Bach to Coltrane, they show just what a musician can do when taking a single melody and running with it.  A while back I posted Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which didn’t really improvise the main melody but came up with new ones while repeating the bass line.  Subsequent composers usually varied the melody by elaborating on bits of it, like in this Beethoven set. This set came about after the musician and (more importantly) publisher, Anton Diabelli, sent a waltz melody to the leading German composers of the time and requested each of them to write a variation on it.  Beethoven thought the melody was garbage and ignored it at first. One story has him changing his mind when he learned that other respected composers (Czerny and Hummel, a sometimes rival) were doing it.  Or maybe he decided that the melody was pliable enough to accomplish something.  Most likely Diabelli simply offered Beethoven money to compose multiple variations; he knew they’d sell.  Beethoven wrote 33 variations.  Like Coltrane working a show tune, these 33 get pretty far out there, way ahead of their time.  There’s everything from mockery of the melody (“this melody is shit”) to transcendance (“look what I can do with even a shitty melody”) and, well, who knows what to call it.  There have been plenty of great theme and variation works since, but none have put a melody through the wringer quite like this. 

Beethoven was a master of improvisation; he wrote other such sets, but also worked variations into his symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets, etc.  If you want a shorter example, try the second (and final) movement of his piano sonata #32, his last, where he twists a hymn-like melody all over the place before landing in long, brutal, and otherworldly trills that would cripple a normal hand.  The second movement starts at 9:00 if you don’t want to hear the first.

Goldbergs


I’m sure you all have a lot of music you have to hear a few times a year. On my list is Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I’m kind of addicted to theme and variations pieces, and this is one of the best, inventive and resourceful as hell. Bach can get too dour and Lutheran for me, but not here. Consists of an aria, 30 variations, then the aria again at the end. The common theme is not the aria but the bass line, which is repeated in every variaton, although not always overtly. The melodies of the variations are not necessarily related to one another. A huge range of material from a single bass line. Reminds me of how many rock songs use the same bass/chord structures a million different ways. But these are all from one work by one guy.

If I’m in the mood to hear a crazy young person play it, I go to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording. This record made him an overnight sensation, and I would guess that it’s the #1 selling classical album of all time. If I’m in the mood to hear a crazy middle-aged person play it, I like GG’s 1981 re-make. When I want to hear it played by someone from this planet, I like the one posted above.

Musicologists wet their trousers when Bach is played on a piano instead of a harpsicord. They shit themselves too if the pianist is as individual and “inauthentic” as GG. All the more reason to love these records.

A musicologist is a man who can read music but can’t hear it. -Sir Thomas Beecham

Without music, life would be a mistake.-Friedrich Nietzsche

New Clothing Line For The Nihilistic Child

Werner Herzog seems to have taken a break from directing in order to design a new line of children’s clothing.

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♬ Claire de Lune – Ave Maria