A blend of past and present, art and life: Beethoven’s most challenging work for piano, the Diabelli Variations op. 120, has triggered a mania of interest on the theatrical scene. Several years ago New York playwright Moisés Kaufman visited my wife Katherine Syer and myself — the first of several visits — to shape a play on Beethoven. The resulting play, 33 Variations, focuses on Beethoven’s spectacular obsession with Anton Diabelli’s humble but sturdy waltz, and in turn our own scholarly obsession with the composition. Following a final workshop of the play at the University of Illinois and its premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, it reached Broadway with Jane Fonda assuming the central role of the musicologist Katherine Brandt, who seeks to unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s obsession by studying the composer’s sketchbooks at the Beethoven Archive at Bonn. From major stages in Los Angeles to Chicago, Berlin to Tokyo, 33 Variations is now being performed at many regional and community theaters around the country.
The intertwining of art and life goes further. Fascinated by his own visit to Bonn to examine Beethoven’s manuscripts, Kaufman set the second act of the play in the Beethoven Archive itself. (The New York production won a Tony Award for the stage set depicting the archive.) Just as the play opened, a big fundraising effort enabled the Beethoven-Haus at Bonn to acquire the autograph score of the Diabelli Variations from private hands, enabling the intriguing manuscript to join the sketchbooks already in that collection. The manuscript treasure can be viewed online through the digital archives of the Beethoven-Haus.
One level of action in 33 Variations takes place in Vienna around 1820; the other occurs in New York and Bonn in the present day. Both Beethoven and the scholar Katherine are engaged in a quest for meaning and a race against time, struggling against grave illness. In the play, Katherine doesn’t survive the action; her final scholarly paper is read by her daughter Clara. What has Katherine learnt? That a valuable, seemingly unlimited source of inspiration lies in the commonplace, accessible to us all. Diabelli’s rough “cobbler’s patch” of a theme is not to be despised. Guided by this insight, Katherine’s judgmental regard of Clara yields to a more generous, profound humanity, as she sees her daughter with new eyes, no longer treating her condescendingly like a second-rate waltz.
The cast of 33 Variations requires seven actors as well as a pianist who plays many of the variations. In its sequence of scenes, the play mirrors the variation form of Beethoven’s great work with a fugue of interwoven themes and a graceful minuet finale. Kaufman’s fictional construction is sustained by Beethoven’s creative vision. In one memorable scene, Katherine is amazed to observe from Beethoven’s sketches how the composer created Variation 3 step-by step, refining a basic idea through richer successive versions. The pianist brings this creative unfolding to sound for the audience.
In my research I discovered that Beethoven conceived two-thirds of the variations in 1819 and then, unable to finish the piece, put the work aside for several years. The manuscripts reveal how he finished it, by incorporating ironic allusions to the original waltz and then radically transforming it in later variations. Beethoven absorbs into his work an encyclopedic range of contexts including references to Bach, Handel, and Mozart before capping his cycle through a fascinating self-reference to the last movement of his own last sonata.
It is rare for a play to engage so directly with musical meaning and the creative process, and gratifying how a book and recording helped generate an unanticipated harvest like 33 Variations. How one thing leads to another — sometimes quite unexpectedly — is Beethoven’s secret. Anton Diabelli requested just a single variation from Beethoven, seeking to have the famous composer’s name associated with a networking project for his fledgling publishing firm. Instead of that single variation, Beethoven instead offered after years of toil a microcosm of his art, a colossal achievement brimming with wit and brilliance but also compassionate understanding. Now, almost two centuries later, his astonishing brainstorm exerts a stronger spell than ever before. The play that started in our living room in Illinois testifies to that effect. Artworks like Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations draw people together, raise awareness, enable new friendships, and open new perspectives.