Theatreworks dives into the mystery of Beethoven’s ’33 Variations’

Ludwig van Beethoven is responsible for some of the most beautiful and passionate music known to man. Listening to pieces like “Pathetique Sonata,” “Fur Elise” and the ubiquitous and passionate “Ninth Symphony,” the music is open and naked for all to hear, yet the man behind it remains shrouded in legend and mystery more than 185 years after his death.

The music producer and composer Anton Diabelli, in an effort to raise funds for the Napoleonic war victims, sent a simple waltz to all of the major Austrian composers in 1819, looking to publish a patriotic volume of their personal variations. By this time, Beethoven was just about completely deaf, but what followed over the course of the next four years were 33 variations of the same simple melody, considered one of the crowning achievements in all of music history.

While much is known about the process of the variations, considering much of what Beethoven wrote in his sketchbooks have survived, there are other aspects of the project that are entrenched in wonder. Was Beethoven participating to prove his mastery over other composers of the genre? Was it to outdo himself? Regardless of the outcome, scholars and musicologists throughout history have found the variations a hallmark achievement in piano composition, without parallel.

The exploration into the mystery of the variations is being deeply explored at Theatreworks in Palo Alto. “33 Variations,” written by Moises Kaufmann, is the story of musicologist Katherine Brandt (Rosina Reynolds). She is obsessed with getting to the bottom of why Beethoven (Howard Swain) would spend so much time and so many years crafting from such simple melodies. Beethoven’s own failing health history and deafness parallels Brandt’s race against time as she battles Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In addition to the compelling story, live piano music is also prominently featured.

Swain, a longtime Bay Area actor, has always had an affinity for Beethoven, but made even more discoveries about the man’s genius as he tackled the role.

“Once he was deaf, he could never hear his music again, and when he tried to conduct, it didn’t work out,” said Swain. “A whole new form of music was created because it was all in his head. He finished the Ninth Symphony and never heard it.”

The Ninth Symphony is legend in music lore, especially because of a certain tale which is universally accepted as truth. As the story goes, when Beethoven conducted it in its premiere, he began to cry at the conclusion when he heard no applause. Only when he was turned around by an orchestra member did he view a standing ovation.

Failing health and hearing loss did not stop Beethoven, which is another theme of the play. As Swain mentioned, people like Beethoven do not retire. Hearing loss, failing health and an overall breakdown of the most joyous things in life did not stop him. These insights might be in the plethora of books on his life, but the most important source material is the music itself.

“Sometimes he would be playing one emotion on one hand, and the direction for other hand would be a completely different mood,” said Swain. “Pianos were five octaves when he began, and he kind of like invented the modern piano.

“He would play things to really blow people away, and some of his pieces sounded like two people were playing. Supposedly Beethoven had this huge octave range that nobody else had.”

So much of Beethoven’s legacy is steeped in the negative. Often, in looking at his life, we see the heartache, the anger, the petulance, the loss of hearing and the spurned love. But was he really that miserable? Could someone who created some of the most beautiful music in history have experienced such minimal joy in their lives? Even though we often see the pictures of a scowling Beethoven, Swain is certainly making sure to show that the composer was in fact a man who saw the world in a beautiful light.

“All we know is this loud, angry guy with hearing problems. But he was mostly surrounded by the joy that he can do this, those sounds that came out of him,” said Swain. “In my performance, I try to eliminate some of the negative side. Even though he was gruff and yelling at servants, he was ecstatic and happy. It drove him crazy when problems came up, but his joy and passion was so deep.”

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Theatreworks presents the regional premiere of “33 Variations”
Written by Moises Kaufmann
Directed by Robert Kelley
Through Oct. 28th
The Mountain ViewCenter for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA94041
Tickets range from $23 – $64
For tickets, call 650.463.1960 or visit the official website

Beethoven (Howard Swain) is the subject of musicologist Katherine Brandt’s (Rosina Reynolds) research in “33 Variations.” (Photo by Tracy Martin)

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