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Gerald Carpenter: Berkowitz Talks Beethoven

Gerald Carpenter, Noozhawk Contributing Writer | @noozhawknews

Paul Berkowitz
Paul Berkowitz

On Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, the Faulkner Gallery of the Central Library became the concert hall for a piano composition that bends a waltz into near-infinite new forms.

The maestro at the piano bench was UCSB Professor Paul Berkowitz, and the composition at his fingertips was Ludwig van Beethoven’s 33 Variations for Piano on a Waltz by Diabelli, Opus 120 (1819–1823), known as the "Diabelli Variations."

Since Berkowitz has been so generous as to offer to the public two complete performances of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" in the same month — the first free and the next breathtakingly reasonable at $10 — I thought I would test his generosity even further and put a couple of questions to him concerning this monumental work of Beethoven's late maturity.

Gerald Carpenter: There used to be a charming legend passed around among music lovers that that Bruno Walter refused to conduct Mozart's 40th symphony until he had reached the age of 50. True or not, the story speaks to a persistent myth about music — that one has to be educated to appreciate great music.

Playing it is something else again, of course, but I don't think that Walter would have conducted the Mozart any better at 50 than at 25, when he was Mahler's assistant because his hesitation (if true) was not based on doubts of his own ability but of his mature understanding.

I guess this is a roundabout way of asking you, why now for the "Diabelli"?

Paul Berkowitz: Although I dimly recall that in my mid-teens, I wouldn't allow myself to listen to the late Beethoven string quartets until I "deserved" them by first getting to know the earlier quartets, that has not typically been my own  approach to the great and late works of any composer.

I have always been drawn to the great mysteries of a composer's last thoughts, probably a little too precociously. I learned Beethoven's A-flat Sonata, Opus 110, when I was just 18 (I played it for my audition to the Curtis Institute) and the last Schubert Sonata, the B-flat Major D. 960, as just my second Schubert Sonata when I was 21 — I played that for my Curtis graduation recital.

I gave a trio of recitals at the Wigmore Hall in London of the last three sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in 1983, at the age of 35. Mind you, that was the age at which Mozart died, and Schubert had already been dead for four years!

I even attempted to tackle Beethoven's "Hammerklavier Sonata," Opus 106, back in 1998, yet I have only just come around to the "Diabelli Variations." I learned them only this past year, and these are my first performances.

I have to admit that they simply weren't on my radar until recently. I have heard the set performed live only twice in my life, in spite of living in London for 21 years, where I would attend concerts two or three times per week.

Once was by the great Canadian pianist Anton Kuerti at the Wigmore Hall in London sometime in the 1980s (I was there with Richard Goode, all three of us former students of Rudolf Serkin, and still remember the wonderful transition from the fugue into the final minuet as he played it), and then a few years ago here in Santa Barbara as performed by Peter Serkin at the Lobero. I never did get to hear them performed by his father Rudolf. I think I must have missed a chance in my London years. 

Alfred Brendel must have played them at some point. He is on record as considering the "Diabelli Variations" the greatest work written for the piano probably because of the huge scale of it — it is quite daunting to take on and not the easiest work to sight-read, which is the way I get to know a piece before undertaking to study it.

It also has the reputation of being daunting for audiences — I think partly because, unlike sonata movements, it's harder to find something to hang onto, as nothing ever repeats or returns. Once you leave a variation, its material never comes back again. It can be quite a lot to take in on first or tenth hearing.

They can be almost relentless, the way they just keep coming at you, one after the other, without pause.

 Yet, as I began to take a closer look at the "Diabelli Variations" about a year ago, I became more and more fascinated by them. They quite simply are the most inventive and adventurous work I know — of Beethoven or anyone.

The immense variety of ideas and the wild harmonies are truly incredible and marvelous. Also, while almost all Beethoven is full of dynamic energy, this work has throughout, aside from the three variations in the minor key near the end, which are deeply expressive and even tragic, an immense good humor — even actually humorous at times (for example the 13th variation and the 22nd, the Mozart "Don Giovanni" parody).

It must be one of the most thoroughly joyful of works, something which really appeals to me now. I may have been deaf to that aspect earlier on.

GC: One feels compelled to mention the "Goldberg Variations." It seems to me that the only — alas, decisive — advantage that the Bach set has over the Beethoven is that the Goldberg tune is simple and noble, while the Diabelli waltz is crassly inane.

Variation per variation, Beethoven proves himself the master, both in construction and lyrical imagination. The variations are so extravagant that we might be discovering some lost Schubert. He knows the waltz doesn't deserve such royal treatment, but he can't help himself. Agree? Disagree?

PB: I do not have quite the same take on it. Of course, the Aria that forms the theme of the Goldberg Variations is noble, as you say, and one of the most beautiful short pieces Bach ever wrote. The variations unfold from that point of origin.

Beethoven must have seen that the simple "waltz" (actually Deutscher Tänze, a German dance faster than the typical waltz) provided so simple basic a model and structure that it could provide a take-off point for the most imaginative leaps of fancy, but I don't find it crass or inane.

It has a rolling energy and good spirit Beethoven appreciated. Quite frankly, it's not really all that different in this regard from Beethoven's own theme that he used for his previous grandest set of variations, the "Eroica Variations," Opus 35.

They are both very simple themes, mostly just rotating between the home key chord, the tonic and its opposite but closely related pole, the dominant chord. The simplicity is what allows the scope for the fantasy of variation.

I actually quite like the "Diabelli" theme. The bad press it gets, deriving from Beethoven's own supposed disdain for it, is something of a fiction: the only source for Beethoven's supposed contempt is Anton Schindler, who has been shown by scholars to have invented Beethoven "quotes" and opinions out of whole cloth, in cases where contrary facts are well documented.

The difference in the "Diabelli Variations," as opposed to Bach's "Goldberg," Beethoven's own Eroica and all the many sets of Brahms Variations, is that Beethoven here does not stick to the harmony or bass line, of the theme. The starting and ending tonic, and the dominant in the middle, are all he sticks to.

Where the theme departs, in each half of the waltz, only by touching on a few standard related chords, in the variations Beethoven ventures out to wider and wider shores. Some of the harmonies are so strange and outlandish that they were not used again until Wagner.

It is this harmonic adventurousness, as well as the inventive and quite crazy variety of treatments, that makes the "Diabelli Variations" so special and unique.

By the way, Diabelli himself, when he came to publish Beethoven's set of variations on his own theme, was the first to compare them in scope and scale to the "Goldberg" as the only set written that measured up to its noble forbear.

GC: Do you think that Beethoven's revolution in music was a deliberate act on his part? A project? Not starting over at zero, like Schoenberg, but intentionally increasing the power of music to describe the personal emotional states, purposeful or chaotic, of an individual soul living in time? The creator is a man, not a god.

PB: This is probably too big a topic to get into, and I have not given it enough thought to pronounce on it. I do think Beethoven had to have been aware of what he inherited and built on from Haydn and Mozart, and where he was challenging and going beyond his models.

Beethoven was continually developing — an "evolutionary revolutionary". He did so in his middle period, and then again in his late period.

 GC: Finally, maestro, perhaps you would comment on being a concert pianist in the age of the cell phone?

 PB: Cell phones are fine. I just hope people turn them off for the recital!

Last week, in my preview performance for the Santa Barbara Music Club, the second of the beautiful slow variations in the minor mode towards the end of the work was suddenly interrupted by a tinny and endlessly repeated yammer of the Vivaldi Four Seasons emanating from a cell phone ringtone in the front row. I had to stop and wait for the owner to realize it was his phone and turn it off!

Berkowitz will perform the "Diabelli Variations" a second time at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 23, in UCSB Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall.

UCSB students and children under 12 get free seats, adults will have to fork over the exorbitant fee of $10, while non-UCSB students will have to come up with $5. Tickets may be purchased by phone at 805.893.2064, or online at www.music.ucsb.edu.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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