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Thirty-three Dialectics on a Theme: Hegelian Philosophy Vis-à-vis Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations, Op. 120

Schmeder, Maximillian

The "Diabelli" Variations, Op. 120, have long fascinated and repelled musicians and audiences alike. They refuse listeners the chief pastime afforded by the genre, offering little opportunity to track pleasant musical ideas through different guises. The delights of bourgeois spectatorship are confounded by non-parallelisms and motivic complexities that embarrass our customary framework for understanding variation form. Arnold Schoenberg's dictum that "in classical music every variation shows a unity which surpasses that of the theme" has never been more patently contradicted. Most of the variations are rhythmically and harmonically warped, few follow the theme in their sequential disposition of motifs, and almost all of them exhibit a granularity of design without precedent in Beethoven's oeuvre. Diabelli's threadbare waltz is not the sole progenitor of its strange children.
I propose that the Variations represent an experimental application to music of an intellectual method used by German philosophers and writers of the time for deconstructing dualities and unities. In form and function the "Diabelli Principle" most closely approaches the Dialectic of Beethoven's exact contemporary G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), and is construed here in a Hegelian framework. Most variations juxtapose a pair of contrasting Antitheses whose differences are overcome in a summary conclusion amounting to a Sublation. In many cases, Antitheses emerge directly from formerly undivided Theses. As in Hegel's philosophy where the Dialectic is manifested through a wide-ranging variety of forms, the "Diabelli" Variations similarly realize a diverse range of dialectical structures. Moreover, by destabilizing musical objects through pervasive shifts of meter, melodic groupings, and motivic identities, the Variations undertake a Hegelian critique of musical perception and its underlying categories.
I contend that their dialectical meaning is not intended to be decoded hermeneutically through score analysis, but directly apprehended through listening. As scholarship on the Kantian and Burkean Sublime implies, early nineteenth-century listeners understood peak musical experiences as unmediated, intellectual revelation. I suggest that music's engagement with spatial and gestalt reasoning introduced into music perception standards of physical logic and bestowed musical events with ontological significance. A reassessment of works by Beethoven reveals manipulations of implied topographies and objects that bring about "impossible" transformations. These acts of transcendent rationality may underlie the triumphant glory and intellectual significance of musical climaxes for Beethoven's audiences. In becoming sensitized to these phenomena, we may perhaps recuperate a nineteenth-century Idealist mode of listening that apprehended music as a primary ontological experience taking place in the higher reality of mental forms. Approached in this manner, the morphological games of the "Diabelli" Variations emerge vividly in perception and consequence.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Music
Thesis Advisors
Dubiel, Joseph P.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 7, 2014
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