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From waltz to minuet: A narrative journey of memory in Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations", Op. 120

Lia M Jensen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Beethoven's Diabelli Variations stands as one of the greatest variation sets for keyboard in the entire repertoire. Unlike their great predecessor, Bach's Goldberg Variations, however, Beethoven's work does not behave in a logical manner. In an effort to make sense of the expressive shifts between successive variations, the following study relies upon a theory of memory (borrowed from psychology). Understanding the work as a narrative of individual memories of the theme (and other models) provides new insights into the unity in the piece. Ultimately, one finds that Beethoven composed this set of variations with an incredible sense of underlying architectural structure. ^ As a means of background, an initial chapter deals with scholarship concerning the structure of the piece as a whole. Next, a chapter on variation writing and its rhetorical origins locates Beethoven's understanding of the form as a unique rhetorical structure. Chapter three is the analysis which treats each variation in thorough detail both in matters of harmony and structure as well as semiotic elements such as topics, memories, and narrative. Finally, the fourth chapter briefly discusses Diabelli's set of fifty variations as a historical monument. ^ The author concludes that on the surface, Op. 120 behaves illogically, but in matters of deep structure and logic, the work is extremely focused on the spiritual transformation of the theme into a high-style minuet. The accumulation of counterpoint as one of several unifying procedures at play in the piece, adds to the spiritual significance of the work as a whole. By studying Diabelli's published set of fifty variations, one finds that other Viennese composers came to similar solutions about their individual variations as Beethoven. While the two works do not inform each other directly, it seems that the theme inspired composers to explore similar paths of variation writing. Diabelli's set is portrayed by some scholars as a nationalistic monument, and in this regard, sheds new interpretative light on Beethoven's own thirty-three variations. ^

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Recommended Citation

Jensen, Lia M, "From waltz to minuet: A narrative journey of memory in Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations", Op. 120" (2006). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3211384.