SCHUBERT Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
BEETHOVEN Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120

Program notes by Eric Bromberger

Piano Sonata in G Major, D.894

Born January 31, 1797, Vienna
Died November 19, 1828, Vienna

Schubert composed this music in October 1826, and it was published six months later in Vienna by Tobias Haslinger as Schubert’s Opus 78. But when he brought out this score, Haslinger gave it a title that has caused a great deal of confusion: he published the work not as a unified whole but under the names of its four movements, and so it first appeared in April 1827 as Fantaisie, Andante, Menuetto, and Allegretto. This awkward name was in turn abbreviated to Fantasy in G Major, and the music was known for some time under that title, even though Schubert’s manuscript clearly calls the work a sonata on its title page. Haslinger’s substitution of so unwieldy a title of his own has been explained by at least one observer as an effort to attract the developing market of amateur pianists in Vienna with a title that might not seem so forbidding to casual players as a sonata.

Actually, Haslinger’s motives were more complex–and understandable–than such an explanation seems to make them. There were good reasons why he might not want to call this music a sonata, and those reasons center primarily on its first movement. That movement is of extraordinary length (if the indicated repeat is taken, it can stretch out to nearly twenty-five minutes), it is at a moderate tempo, and it has none of the dramatic character one associates with a sonata-form first movement. The other movements are of comparably generous proportions, so much so, in fact, that the entire work can approach fifty minutes in some performances, making it significantly longer than Beethoven’s mighty “Hammerklavier” Sonata. It is no surprise that Haslinger, faced with such unusual music, might choose to identify it to potential buyers as a collection of individual pieces rather than a unified sonata.

But Schubert knew what he was about, and this clearly is a Piano Sonata in G Major, as we have come to know it today. Schubert’s conception of the piano sonata was different from Beethoven’s, and those differences are most evident in that first movement. Schubert’s marking Molto moderato e cantabile suggests that he wants a broad, relaxed, and singing performance, and that is certainly consistent with the music itself, which rocks gently along its 12/8 meter and moves from a pianissimo dynamic in the opening measure to triple piano in the tenth. If this is going to be non-dramatic music, it is also nicely unified: most of the thematic material seems to spin out of that quiet opening subject, and the music by turn dances, surges, and flows across the long span of the movement. The development seems to begin more powerfully in firm G minor, but those tensions relax almost immediately, and the music resumes the character it established in its opening moments. In the closing measures, the rhythmic pattern of the very beginning seems to break down and dissolve as the music marches to a barely-audible close.

The second movement is a slow rondo (the marking is Andante) in 3/8 meter. The opening melody–simplicity itself–will be the basis for the rondo, and it grows more ornate as it reappears across the broad span of this movement. Schubert separates these episodes with violent interruptions, great hammered chords that intrude upon the sweet atmosphere of the beginning and then melt away as the rondo theme reasserts itself. By far the shortest of the movements, the Menuetto dances with a sort of rustic simplicity, once again built on insistent chords; in sharp contrast, Schubert specifies that he wants the delicate trio section molto legato after the staccato chords of the minuet.

The last movement is another rondo, but this one too is at an unexpected tempo: rather than opting for a brilliant finale, Schubert writes a comfortable one. The marking here is Allegretto, and the agreeable central theme makes clear that–like the first movement–this music will be essentially non-dramatic. Schubert takes that rondo theme through a series of varied permutations: sometimes it dances in the piano’s ringing high register, sometimes it appears deep in the pianist’s left hand, and it undergoes some nice thematic evolution as it proceeds. A gorgeous C-minor episode marked espressivo passes by so quickly that it is over almost before the ear has begun to adjust; Schubert then brings it back in sunny C major, and just as quickly this vanishes too. So this movement goes: it is long, but it offers a constantly-evolving musical landscape, and finally this music dances its way to an ending all the more wonderful for being so understated.

33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120

Born December 16, 1770, Bonn
Died March 26, 1827, Vienna

In March 1819 the Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli invited fifty Austrian composers to write one variation on a little dance tune Diabelli had written himself. He planned to publish this theme and the set of fifty variations in a volume he grandly called “Väterlandischer Künstlerverein, Variations for Pianoforte on a Given Theme, composed by the foremost Tone-poets and Virtuosi of Vienna and the Austrian States.” Diabelli’s motives were to some extent nationalistic–he intended this “patriotic anthology” as a demonstration of what Austrian composers could accomplish–but the project rested on a sound business sense as well: such a volume would be attractive to the growing number of amateur pianists in Vienna, who would be drawn by the names of so many famous composers and pianists. Most of the fifty are today forgotten, though some of the names remain familiar: Czerny, Moscheles, and Kalkbrenner all contributed variations, as did the 22-year-old Schubert and the very young Liszt (his first publication). The names of several other contributors also survive, but not for their composing: these include the Archduke Rudolph and Simon Sechter, remembered as the theory teacher of Schubert and–much later–Bruckner.

Diabelli of course invited the most famous composer in Vienna to contribute a variation, but Beethoven, then 48 and completely deaf, was not interested. He found Diabelli’s theme unappealing, dismissing it as a Schusterfleck: literally, “cobbler’s patch,” but in music a term that implies aimless repetition of certain notes. At another point, Beethoven described Diabelli’s theme simply as a Deutsche–a German dance. But as he looked at this seemingly innocuous little tune, Beethoven began to see possibilities. He paused in his work on the Missa Solemnis and very quickly wrote not one variation on the theme but twenty and then set the project aside in May 1819. Not until three years later, in the fall of 1822, did Beethoven return to these variations, and then he gave them his full attention. He worked through the winter and completed his set of thirty-three variations on Diabelli’s theme in April 1823, just before he set to work on the Ninth Symphony. Diabelli brought out the variations on his theme in two volumes: the first was Beethoven’s set of variations (his last composition for piano, and one of his greatest works), the second was the collection of variations by the fifty other composers (which immediately dropped into darkest obscurity).

At what point did Beethoven pass from his initial disdain for Diabelli’s theme–a bland little waltz tune in C major in two sixteen-bar phrases–and move on to fascination with it? That cannot be known, but what we can understand is what Beethoven did with that theme: he broke it down into its component parts–melody, rhythm, harmony–and began to explore the possibilities locked beneath the theme’s placid surface. The thirty-three variations of the Diabelli Variations, as the work has come to be called, are not decorative variations in which the theme is progressively embellished but remains present even as it grows more ornate. Instead, listeners will find that in the Diabelli Variations the original theme often seems to disappear entirely as Beethoven seizes on a detail of rhythm or turn of phrase and makes that the basis for variation.

Some of these variations dash past in a matter of seconds, but others are extended and the thirty-three variations extend over the generous span of around fifty minutes, making the Diabelli Variations about as long as the Eroica. Such a length is remarkable, for variation form would seem to do nothing but simply circle around the original theme, but one of the successes of the Diabelli Variations lies in Beethoven’s arrangement of his variations so that the listener makes a musical (and emotional) journey across the lengthy span of this music. Many of the opening variations are light and of the same emotional cast, and until Variation 29 all but one remain in C major. Diabelli’s original theme is transformed along the way: Beethoven treats it in both triple and duple meters, and his variations are by turn declarative, wistful, dancing, exciting, powerful.

There are some surprises: Variation 22 incorporates the theme of Leporello’s aria Notte e giorno faticar from the beginning of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (here it fits neatly within the pattern of the variations), and Variation 24 is a slow fughetta. Beethoven progresses to the “climax” of this sequence of variations: Nos. 29-31 adopt a slower tempo and move into C minor; the last of these is an aching and ornate extension of the theme in 9/8. And out of this explodes Variation 31, a furiously energetic fugue. Its dazzling energy and sudden leap into bright E-flat major would seem to signal the destination Beethoven has been working toward all along, but this is not the case. The fugue comes to a close, and now Beethoven moves back to C major for the concluding variation, which comes as a complete surprise: it is a polished and poised minuet that–rather than plunging into new territory–seems instead to evoke the music of the previous century. On this elegant minuet, the Diabelli Variations moves to its surprisingly subdued close. After some of the fury that has preceded it, this ending seems strange. And yet it rounds off the work perfectly.

Diabelli was astonished with what Beethoven had done with his theme, and he published this set of variations in June 1823, barely two months after Beethoven had finished it. On that occasion, he drafted a florid advertising puff calculated to increase sales, but his description of this music reveals not only his own understanding of what Beethoven had achieved, but also his amazement at what had happened to his own theme. Diabelli’s description reads in part: “The most original structures and ideas; the boldest musical idioms and harmonies are here exhausted; every pianoforte effect based on a solid technique is employed, and this work is the more interesting from the fact that it is elicited from a theme which no one would otherwise have supposed capable of such a working-out.”