Art and Aesthetics · music

Writing About The Pengyang Memorial Inscription With Emotion (or ‘Triumph’)

Between 1821 and 1823, Beethoven wrote his last major work for the piano, the Diabelli Variations.  He took a simple theme furnished by his publisher, and added 33 variations.

A few months ago, in the middle of my life, and perhaps overly sensitive to my mortality, I challenged myself to learn this piece. I set myself the goal of memorizing a variation a day, and discovered 33 new ways of playing the piano.

In 1819, The Austrian publisher Anton Diabelli, seeking to broaden his business, wrote a waltz, only 36 bars long, and sent it to fifty of the most eminent composers of the day, including  Franz Schubert, the 11 year old Franz Liszt, and Beethoven. He asked each of them to write a variation on the waltz. His plan was to compile them in a grand anthology that would celebrate Austria’s musical greatness as well as make him a little money and fame.

“This is a cobbler patch of a tune”, the 48 year old Beethoven scoffed. He tossed it aside.  Not only was the tune beneath him, but for the past 30 odd years he had composed only original works and original melodies. When he was younger and his hearing was unimpaired he concertized extensively, often improvising magnificently on all manner of themes. Now, he was an old man (for the time), and in the middle of creating some of music’s greatest masterpieces, such as the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony and the five last piano sonatas. His hearing was completely gone.

Yet a few months later, under a commission from Diabelli, he started to compose a set of variations and over the next four years, formed what would be known as the Diabelli Variations. Why did he do it? Was it the challenge of drawing art from an ostensibly superficial work? Was it to prove to himself that he still had all his musical gifts. Was it because he had been inspired by the Goldberg Variations of Bach, written also for an apparently trivial reason, to help a lord plagued by insomnia?”

The theme and the first variation are shared here.  The variation has a triumphant tone, brimming with success and glory. The full high res recording will be available online in a few weeks. Stay posted!

延陵留表墓,  yán líng liú biǎo mù,

岘首送沈碑。  xiàn shǒu sòng shěn;chén bēi。

敢伐不加点,  gǎn fá bù jiā diǎn,

犹当无愧辞。  yóu dāng;dàng  wú kuì cí。

百生终莫报,  bǎi shēng zhōng mò bào,

九死谅难追。  jiǔ sǐ liàng nán zhuī。

待得生金后,  dāi dé;děi;de shēng jīn hòu,

川原亦几移。  chuān yuán yì jǐ;jī yí.


The inscriptions of glory remain on the tomb

Xianshou Mountain bestowed the black memorial tablet

Bravely cut without a superfluous word

As though absolutely sure of what to say

Even a hundred lives couldn’t proclaim such news

Even after nine deaths it would be hard to follow

When such tablets gives forth their gold

one may be inspired to move rivers and plains ten fold.


Musical Interlude: Beethoven, Diabelli Variations, Op: 120: Theme, Variation No. 1. Alla Marcia maestoso (Pianist: Mark Obama Ndesandjo)

Featured Image Credit

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