Beethoven's music: John Suchet explores the Diabelli Variations

Beethoven's Diabelli Variations is a monumental work that stands alongside Bach’s Goldberg Variations as one of the two greatest sets of variations for piano ever composed.

In early 1819 the music publisher and dilettante composer Anton Diabelli wrote a waltz theme and invited all Vienna’s leading composers to compose a single variation on it, intending to publish the completed set.

Beethoven not only disliked collaborative ventures, he had certain other matters on his mind. In January, following the humiliation of being shown in court not to be of noble birth, the Magistrat forced him to relinquish his guardianship of Karl. The last thing he intended doing was work on a variation of a banal theme composed by someone else …

… And immediately began work on not just one, but a whole set of variations. But he then set it aside half-finished to begin work on the mighty Missa Solemnis [see below]. It is not clear whether he simply lost interest or ever intended to go back to it, but go back to it he did – nearly four years later. This time he did complete the set, producing no fewer than 33 variations, in a monumental work that stands alongside Bach’s Goldberg Variations as one of the two greatest sets of variations for piano ever composed.

The Diabelli Variations cover the whole range of human emotions. There is humour: in Variation 22 Beethoven quotes from the opening aria of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in which Leporello complains of having to work all night and all day. Variation 20 seems to take us down to the ghostly catacombs. The intricate double fugue of Variation 32 is thrilling; while the final Variation, a Minuet, is ethereally beautiful.

A glorious work by a deaf composer in failing health yet at the height of his powers.

At the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1990, the young Polish-Hungarian pianist Piotr Anderszewski chose to play the Diabelli Variations – an unprecedentedly bold move, given that most competitors attempt to sparkle without taking risks. He gave a magnificent performance, then returned to play Webern’s tiny three-movement Op. 27 Variations. With just one movement he go, he froze, walked off stage, thus disqualifying himself from the competition. What can you follow the Diabellis with? Nothing.