My Favorites: Figaro and the "Diabelli" Variations

By James David Jacobs

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For the week of Valentine's Day, we'll be playing the music you love most, and in that spirit, here is the next in a series of what a few of us here at 99.5 All Classical love most.

James David Jacobs came to us in March 2010 and joined our crack team of producer/announcers last August.

Be sure to tune in each hour this week to hear what your fellow listeners love, and you can catch up on the entire list as pieces hit the airwaves right here at 995allclassical.org!


Feb. 14

Two pieces I love are Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro and Beethoven’s "Diabelli" Variations, works is that celebrate, with the profoundest possible music, aspects of the human condition that usually don’t come up in discussions of immortal masterworks.

Mozart’s Figaro is probably the greatest work of art about humans the way they actually are. Most artists save their most sublime utterances for portraying human’s relationship to the divine, in which our existence is presented in terms of cosmic struggles or cosmic celebrations. Mozart was certainly capable of addressing these sorts of themes in works such as Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, the Mass in C minor and the Requiem

But he never wrote a more profound and affecting portrait of the state of existential angst than the short aria Barbarina sings at the beginning of Act IV of Figaro. I think we’ve all had the experience, when we were kids (and remember that the original Barbarina, Anna Gottlieb, was twelve years old at the time of the premiere), of an adult entrusting you with something, only to lose it or break it, then thinking the world was going to end. Barbarina lost the pin she was supposed to deliver to Susanna from the Count, and you can hear in the music her angst and her urgency, and a deep sorrow; what she’s really losing is her childhood.

It’s an amazing two minutes of music theater.  It tells us everything we need to know about this character, and it also gives you a glimpse of what Susanna came from and the lot of women in this environment. But the most musically moving moment in the opera occurs in the second act finale, when Figaro is doing a terrible job trying to lie his way out of being caught in a scheme designed to humiliate the Count.  The Count is angry because his plans to send Figaro away and bed his fiancée Susanna are being derailed.  Susanna is of course angry at the Count but also starting to see that Figaro’s Bugs Bunny-like ability to slip out of every uncomfortable situation with a smirk and a shrug isn’t really cutting it any more.  And the Countess is realizing that seeing her husband get his deserved comeuppance doesn’t really compensate for the loss of his love and attention.

These are not noble emotions; they are all being self-interested and judgmental. They’re all smart, un-evil people who know better but, at this moment, they've used their intelligence to justify their own baseness instead of rising above it. And it’s not like they’re that base; no one brandishes a weapon. Compared to most operatic situations half-way through the evening, one could say that the stakes are actually pretty low.

But the music Mozart writes for this moment, in Bachian four-part counterpoint that would not be out of place in a setting of the Mass, is some of the most sublime he ever wrote. It’s as if Mozart is saying that humanity doesn’t have to be in some sort of extreme state of grace or despair to be worth celebrating and dignifying, that our every-day state of stumbling along through our folly is holy and profound and dramatic enough to warrant the greatest music one is capable of.

Then there are Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations, which he wrote while he was supposed to be writing something else. You know what it's like when you have this really, really important deadline coming up? And the clock is ticking, and you've known about this deadline for a long time?  But you've just never been able to get anywhere with the project that's due.  And for some reason you get obsessed with some really minor project that's not nearly as important...

That's what it was like for Beethoven in 1819. He had been commissioned to compose a ceremonial Mass for the elevation of his longtime patron Archduke Rudolph to Archbishop. This was huge, both in terms of an opportunity and in terms of an obligation. It didn't help that Beethoven had already declared that his Missa Solemnis would be unprecedented in form and scope, unlike any Mass yet composed, since that was the least he could do for the great Rudolph to whom he owed so much.

The ceremony was to take place in March 1820, and in March 1819 Beethoven was at his desk trying and failing to get anywhere with the Missa Solemnis. At this point someone brought him a letter and a short piece of music from the publisher Anton Diabelli. It was a waltz that was also sent to forty-nine other prominent musicians (including Schubert, Czerny and a ten-year-old prodigy named Franz Liszt), and the letter was a request to write a single variation on it.

Diabelli's intention was to publish fifty variations in one volume by fifty different composers. Beethoven's initial reaction to this idea was scorn, deriding the waltz as a "cobbler's patch." But as work on the Missa Solemnis became more difficult, Beethoven turned to Diabelli’s request the way one might start doodling or solving a crossword puzzle. Diabelli assumed that his request for a single variation on a simple 32-bar waltz could be fulfilled by someone of Beethoven's talent in a couple of hours, but for Beethoven nothing was simple. By the end of 1819, he had sketched out no fewer than twenty-three variations, having not gotten any further on the Missa Solemnis than he had eight months earlier.

(In the end a Mass by Johann Nepomuk Hummel was played at the ceremony instead; Beethoven finally did complete the Mass in 1823, which, while three years too late for the occasion it was written for, was every bit as great as he promised it would be. A year later he premiered the Ninth Symphony.)

What's so great about the Variations is that it gives a great glimpse into how a genius goofs off. In the course of the thirty-three variations that he eventually ended up composing, we see the entire gamut of styles and attitudes Beethoven was capable of. Unlike Bach's "Goldberg" Variations, which all strictly adhere to the form and length of the initial Aria, Beethoven is as insouciant with this theme as he was flaky about his deadlines. Like Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, the "Diabelli" Variations can be seen as a series of comic adventures, with Beethoven tilting at the windmill of this silly waltz and trying every strategy he can think of to conquer it.

But while Beethoven frequently ridiculed the theme, he would not have mined it for an hour's worth of music if he had found it worthless. He also could not have been immune to the fact that the theme is evocative of his own style; the obsessive rhythms, deceptively simple harmonies and dramatic use of dynamics all point to something one could find in 1802-era Beethoven.

What Beethoven did in this work is to reflect the messy, asymmetrical way in which people actually experience the world and respond to it, which reflected the messy state of Beethoven's life in 1820, in which he was trying to make peace with his family in light of some of Beethoven's own hardheadedness regarding the guardianship of his nephew and trying to negotiate a changed musical landscape in which people were flocking to Rossini operas instead of orchestra concerts.

The procession of variations illustrate how we look forwards, we look backwards, we try to retrace our steps, we laugh at ourselves, we cry, we do all at the same time. This work could be seen as a celebration of life and creativity that bursts the seams of seeming necessity, of the beauty of flakiness. In spending an hour pondering the possibilities inherent in this trivial, all-too-human theme, he offers us an act of contrition and catharsis for his own folly, and absolves his listeners, his fellow composers, and even his publishers of theirs.

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