By 1818, Ludwig van Beethoven had been in a five-year slump. He'd not produced any major music in that time, and even wrote a few embarrassments, including a political potboiler. We might call it a musical mid-life crisis.
Then a Vienna music publisher named Anton Diabelli composed a simple little waltz tune and asked 51 composers to contribute one variation each on the theme. It was meant as an Austrian patriotic anthology, with young Franz Schubert and 11-year-old Franz Liszt among the participants.
Beethoven at first declined. But when he eventually toyed with the theme, turns out he had a lot to say. It was musical Play-Doh. He mocked it, he stretched it out, he found it completely "plastic" and a canvas for both extraordinary variety and cosmic contemplation.
He went to town on it, dashing off 23 variations. A few years later, he added 10 more —- making "33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli" the most significant theme-and-variations set of the classical era.
(Despite the aim of Jane Fonda's musicologist in "33 Variations," the play's premise —- "Why did Beethoven spend so much energy on a trivial tune?" —- gets the matter backward. A sturdier theme might not have been so flexible, or so yearning, for variations.)
And it helped break the composer's creative drought: A flood of late masterpieces made it to paper soon after, including epic piano sonatas, sublime string quartets and the "Ode to Joy" Ninth Symphony.
The most compelling recording of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" comes from Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, brimming with snarky wit, nobility and intelligence.
It's on the Virgin Classics label and downloadable from iTunes.
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