Beethoven’s masterpiece set of 32 Variations in C Minor has always felt to me as if the entire universe were contained therein.
Of course, everything from Ludwig van Beethoven’s hand has that quality, so difficult to capture in a description yet so undeniably present —inevitability, an acknowledgement of the human condition, anguish at what that entails and hopefulness that mankind’s despair may be conquered. We cannot point to a place in the score of a masterpiece and say, ‘Here it is. That is what this is.’, but those emotions are surely there, able to be read and heard, as certainly as any music theory element that can be lifted out and analyzed. We can say that Beethoven’s music consists nearly entirely of development, that Beethoven habitually came up with a theme possessing little in the way of a melodic line or heavy-weighted exposition and then went on to develop it to a perfect culmination. In essence, everything is a variation of what was outlined in the beginning — often not easily recognizably so, due to the immense imagination and ingenuity Beethoven had in creating new facets beneath the surface of what came before.
Masterpiece reflecting the world as we know it
From each astounding masterpiece that Beethoven bequeathed to us we come away with similar responses, I feel — even when there might be a difference in overall mood or more emphasis on one emotion rather than another. Of all these wonders, the composition 32 Variations on an Original Theme, in C Minor, WoO 80, written in 1806, is for me a crystallization of everything that could possibly be felt, dreamt, or aspired to. (I leave the musical analysis to those who are better equipped to carry it out.) Of all the pianists who have approached this piece (discounting only Maria João Pires, who, to my everlasting joy performed it as an encore after a recital I attended but, unfortunately, has not recorded it), the master Emil Gilels is the one who plays it with such sound and fury as if he had been born knowing it. In the words of a critic at Fanfare Magazine:
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