Beethoven 250: recalling Brian Macdonald’s Diabelli Variations

As I reminisce about a piece choreographed by Brian Macdonald I hope I can be forgiven for seguing into remembrance of the man, who is known for many things. You probably saw one of the musicals he directed at Stratford, perhaps on film or TV if not in person.

Back in 2005 I brought him in as a keynote speaker for the FOOT Festival at University of Toronto’s Drama Centre. It was an honour and a huge thrill.

The obituary I pulled up mentions opera.
“In October, Macdonald returned to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and from his wheelchair supervised yet another revival of his critically acclaimed 1990 production of Madama Butterfly. His curtain call was his last public appearance.”

I raved about one of the casts, the best Butterfly I’ve ever seen.

His career was long. I see in that obit I shared above, that he was also “artistic director of Montreal’s Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (1974-77).” During one of their visits to Toronto at the O’Keefe Centre I saw Macdonald’s Diabelli Variations.

I see in that obit that Macdonald “aspired to be a concert pianist.” I wonder if Macdonald ever played the Diabelli Variations himself? Surely.

The tickets for that show back in the 1970s were available among my acquaintances at Trinity College, University of Toronto when I was an undergrad. A red-haired fellow in our group named Barry sounded off to me during the intermission that there was simply no way to make a ballet out of the Beethoven piece, “Diabelli Variations”. He said “you can’t do this” and of course I disagreed then, and recalling the conversation now am thankful for the boldness of Macdonald’s ideas. I had wanted desperately to come see it again before they left town, but didn’t manage it.

Do you know this piece? The Diabelli Variations are among my most favorite of all Beethoven’s works, piano or otherwise. Someone had the idea of giving a tune to several composers, and then assembling all their variations into one piece. When I think about it, especially when remembering what Beethoven came up with: it’s not really such a good idea. Yes I suppose one might be intrigued at the comparison, between a variation by Schubert (who actually wrote one), and one by Beethoven. But you wouldn’t get the satisfaction of a unified composition such as what Beethoven gave us.

You start with a dinky little tune in 3, a dance tune in C Major. And then Beethoven proceeds to create one of his most remarkable compositions.

Theme and the first of 33 variations

First he does a kind of march which is of course in 4: as if to smash the tune into little pieces, someone said. (was it Anton Kuerti? I can’t recall….but it would match his interpretation). Then the next variation starts with something meek and mild, building over the next few variations, bigger & faster, until we get a climax at variation #7. Variation #8 is a chance to chill out, relax a bit, almost like a lullaby or even an elegy for the massacre of the tune that has been happening. #9 is angular & in chunks in C minor then #10 is a breath-taking release of tension, Presto. 11 and 12 are waltzy with very little movement, gently exploring the melody. #13 is another explosive release of tension before we come again to something elegiac and maestoso, namely #14. But 15, 16 and 17 are fast & playful. 18 is a slower dance melody, then 19 is a vivid presto again, leading us to the slow-motion of 20. 21 is faster, then 22 is a light parodic interlude mocking the opening of Don Giovanni in its variation. 23 is fast & intense,, then 24 is a thoughtful fughetta based on the melody of course. 25 is as fluid as a skater’s waltz, building to a climax through 26 & the Vivace of 27. For 28 Beethoven is again grinding things into small pieces, before the shit hits in the fan in 29, 30 & 31, successively more pathos & drama in each variation. 32 is a stunning allegro Fuga in E flat major, that leads us back after cadenzas & an introspective adagio like a recitative, to the 33rd variation in C major, tempo di menuetto.

Yes it’s a series of variations, but it’s like a commentary on music & the possibilities of composition. I don’t know that I would have had such a clear understanding of the piece without Macdonald. The piece makes me especially sad today as I think about what we’re unable to do during the pandemic, missing the usual sorts of human society to which we were accustomed. I desperately wish I could talk to Macdonald about the piece.

And I’m sure Beethoven would have loved what Macdonald created. I cherish that conversation with Barry –the one who said “you can’t do this” – that makes the poignancy of the memory so much deeper, even if it’s as far beyond recall as the prospect of getting Ludwig and Brian together for a beer after the show.

Macdonald puts his piano onstage, the ballet dramatizing as the piece gets played. I couldn’t help feeling that this piece was conceived as Macdonald the choreographer played the piece once upon a time. At first it’s just one man dancing while the pianist plays. In due course we see the various actions of the piece, the roughness of the passages such as the first variation where the music seems to be destructive. The piece is ultimately social, the dance element in the music understood as two or more people dancing onstage with the piano, the dance as a kind of response to the music of the piano. It feels like a conversation, that the pianist makes the dance happen in response to what the music is doing. The drama is especially moving at the end, as the erupting energies of the fugue in variation #32 lead to the noble tranquility of the last variation, as though it were about reconciliation, world peace. That’s what it feels like.

The final image that haunts me, as I picture the music of the last bars, is that the dancer is coming back to the piano, where he started, the big open space on the page that parallels the big space on the stage, that would imply lots of people and lots of energy, closing up into something smaller, tighter, intimate, reconciled.

The end

Am I a fool to wish someone would try to choreograph this music again? It’s a fond beautiful image I dimly recollect from another century from an artist who is no longer with us. But the piece is about dance, about human society, about conflict & resolution.
I like it.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, University life and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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