Diabelli’s Variations and the Hugh Lane’s mysterious moving piano

The original theme lacked grandeur, but such portmanteaus can be a source of creativity

 

Horror films have always thrived on scenes featuring everyday objects moving in ways that simply shouldn’t be possible. The table raises itself off the floor. The cutlery moves in threatening ways. The walls begin to close in.

American pianist Edmund Battersby, who gave the opening concert of the Dublin International Piano Festival at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Saturday, may well have felt at times that he was in some sort of movie scene rather than in a regular concert.

While he was playing, the piano began to move away from him. It wasn’t a full concert grand, and didn’t have lockable castors. The gallery has a shiny floor, and the instrument didn’t always manage to stay in its place. Battersby coped masterfully, making the necessary adjustments as if he were merely fixing his jacket or making himself more comfortable on the piano stool.

His savoir faire was all the more remarkable given that he was playing one of the most daunting works in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

The story of these variations is well known. The composer and publisher Anton Diabelli decided to create a “patriotic anthology” by sending all the important Austrian composers of the day a simple waltz theme of his own for each to write a variation on.

Beethoven rejected Diabelli’s original idea, and described the theme as a “cobbler’s patch”. But he changed his mind and wrote a set of 33 variations, which Diabelli proudly published as a companion piece to the 50 variations he had received from other hands.

Banality

Diabelli still gets a fair amount of flak for the banality of the theme he wrote for his grand project. It’s definitely not great music. But it’s memorable, and, as Beethoven proved, it’s extremely adaptable.

Diabelli was both enterprising and shrewd. It was he who first published songs by Schubert – Erlkönig as Op 1, Gretchen am Spinnrade as Op 2 – and he was also the first publisher to issue music by Franz Liszt, who although not yet a teenager, contributed the 24th variation to Diabelli’s huge undertaking.

Beethoven’s own variations, much admired and often compared to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, are heard in concert only infrequently. They’re simply not everyday music, but something for an occasion when everyone is prepared for the special concentration that’s involved.

Battersby’s account was rather rough-hewn. But what it lacked in finesse it made up for with its sureness in conveying the bigger picture. And it had a short but special bonus of its own. Battersby opened with one of the rarely heard other variations, music which has been so thoroughly eclipsed by Beethoven that I have no recollection of ever having heard it in concert before.

The sliver that he chose was the minor key variation contributed by Schubert, wonderful enough in its own way to make one wish that Schubert, too, had taken it on himself to write a full set of his own.

The Diabelli variations was not the 19th century’s only large-scale portmanteau composition. A few days after the death of Rossini in 1868, Verdi came up with the idea that a special requiem Mass should be composed in his colleague’s honour by 13 leading Italian composers of the day. The composers agreed, the work was written, but circumstances conspired against it and the planned performance never took place. It was not rediscovered until 1970, and not actually performed until 1988. The one familiar section remains the Libera me, which Verdi recycled for the celebrated Requiem he wrote for the first anniversary of the death of the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni.

These are also not the only portmanteau projects out of which just a single piece has achieved lasting success. In 1853 three German composers, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Albert Dietrich, collaborated on a sonata for violin and piano for the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Only one of the movements, the Scherzo by Brahms, has ever got much attention from violinists.

In 1942 the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra commissioned 18 fanfares for brass and percussion, one to open each of that season’s concerts. The intention was to bring into being pieces that would be “stirring and significant contributions to the war effort”. The works were written by the orchestra’s British conductor Eugene Goossens, Felix Borowski, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, Anis Fuleihan, Morton Gould, Howard Hanson, Daniel Gregory Mason, Harl MacDonald, Darius Milhaud, Walter Piston, Bernard Rogers, Leo Sowerby, William Grant Still, Deems Taylor, Virgil Thomson and Bernard Wagenaar.

The fanfares were directed to, among others, airmen, Russia, Poland, the fighting French, paratroopers, American heroes. commandos, the medical corps, the signal corps, and the merchant marine. But just one has stood the test of time: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The rest are as forgotten as the series of fanfares Goossens had commissioned in London in 1921, which included a Fanfare for a Challenge to Accepted Ideas by the little-known Felix White. The New Ross Piano Festival, which runs this year from September 24th to 26th, is in the middle of a portmanteau commissioning project of its own.

This year’s festival will include the second instalment of the Ros Tapestry Suite. New works by Sebastian Adams, Elaine Agnew, Gerald Barry, John Kinsella and Gerry Murphy were heard last year. This year’s contributions are by Linda Buckley, Deirdre Gribbin, Andrew Hamilton, Sam Perkin and Eric Sweeney, and the premières will be given by Cédric Tiberghien, Daria van den Bercken, Alexei Grynyuk, Finghin Collins, and Olga Scheps.

Two days later, on September 29th, the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies will open their NCH debut with the collaborative 1921 ballet, Les mariés de la tour Eiffel, which was written by five of the composers known collectively as Les Six: Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre.

Copland, just arrived in Paris, was at the première, and recalled, “The audience was shocked by the modernity of the music and the fanciful nature of the production; they whistled and hooted each time the curtain descended ... It was the perfect way to spend one of my first nights in Paris – to get right into the action, where controversial music and dance were happening.”

The Basel orchestra’s programme also includes less controversial work, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, with Alice Sara Ott as soloist, and Holst’s The Planets. The Dublin International Piano Festival continues until August 2.

pianofestival.ie

mdervan@irishtimes.com

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