Sunday, August 26, 2007

Moises Kaufman: 33 Variations (a layered play about the composition of Beethoven's famous variations)


From Aug. 24, 2007 to Sept. 30, 2007 Arena Stage in Washington DC (in the Waterfront district, not too far from the new Nats stadium) is presented a “preview” of “33 Variations”, by Moises Kaufman, also directed by him, in the auxillary Kreeger Theater, which has a conventional stage with stadium seating.

The play presents two layered stories: one, Beethoven’s composition of his famous Variations on a Theme of Diabelli, Op. 120, for piano, and maybe the longest variation form composition in music literature. The tale is that a publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) wrote a perfunctory waltz theme and invited fifty composers, including Beethoven, to write one variation a piece. He would publish all fifty for a handsome profit. That was numbers-driven music publishing, 19th Century style; and perhaps the dilettante Diabelli (mostly businessman and not artist) thought of himself as the composer's "search engine" in the pre-tech enlightenment era. Beethoven reportedly thought the theme was too trivial to be worth his attention, and relayed the message back through his business manager, Schindler. But then he took an interest, and first was going to write six variations, and the number grew to 33. The variations include a fugue, and the last variation is a stately minuet (ending on one forte C major triad), which Kaufman choreographs to give the play (about 120 min) a curious epilogue. The variations would be composed over many years, with a three year break, and Beethoven’s compositional style would deepen as his deafness intensified and finally, in 1822, became total and complete. The cerebral style is reflected in some other variation sets that form the finales of a couple of late sonatas, no. 30 in E Major (used in a critical scene in the indie movie "Trick"), and the last, in c minor (with the Arioso and variations). For the play, a pianist (Diane Walsh) plays excerpts from about half of the variations in the sequences in which they were actually composed.

The story is told in parallel with the tale of an aging musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil) who is dying of ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- we don't learn "the diagnosis" for a while), with her daughter Clara (Laura Odeh) having to care for her. A male nurse Mike (Greg Keller) helps, and there is some development of a romantic relationship with the daughter. Dr. Brandt travels to Bonn to research the composition of the variations, and the parallel stories are told simultaneously, sometimes with characters from both on the wide stage at the same time. The stage background includes compartments and projections of Beethoven’s handwritten notes and handwritten scribbly drafts. The point is made that Beethoven composed from written notes and represented the common man (in the post French Revolution era) where as Mozart had been a prodigy composer of the Austrian court.

During the modern story, the daughter is encouraged to grow closer to her mother, with a degree of forced intimacy (the term is used in the script) that frightens her at first, as she resists having to touch her mother to give physical therapy. Later, though, she winds up feeding her mother.

The musicology of the piece, as discussed in the play, presents the Diabelli Variations as a mediation on the nature of dance, starting with a dance that is more social (the waltz) and ending with one the is stately, courtly, proper and conservative (the Minuet, which used to be the third movement of most symphonies until Beethoven popularized the scherzo). Beethoven would explore the dance more fully in the Symphony #7 (with its famous Allegretto in place of a slow movement, and a finale that could almost work in a disco). My own piano lessons with the Sherwood course emphasized form, with the Sonata form being the most developed, and the variations being a special opportunity to explore musical fabric for its own sake. I recall a piano teacher calling the Liszt Legends (St. Francis Walking on the Water -- one of my favorites) variations, but they are not in the same sense. The most famous modern example of variation form is probably Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (a theme often used by other composers for variations).

After the play, Kaufman led a Q&A for the audience. I said that I saw this as a film as well as a play. Kaufman says that the idea for the play came to him as he was visiting a Tower Records store just before Tower Records shut down.

The play is a stunning mixture of music as aesthetics, and the moral side of family values.

I did pick up a CD of the Diabelli Variations, a London Decca 4758401 with Vladimir Askenazy as pianist (49 min) with a supplement: "12 Variations in A Major from Paul Wronitzky's Ballet Das Waldmadchen", WoO 71 ("The Forest Maiden"). The Diabelli, when played at home, does have a hypnotic effect. The entire composition is in C Major except for the fugue, Var. 32, in E-flat, and the Minuet indeed provides an ironic conclusion, final C Major chord and all.

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