Funny How Plays are Born by Moisés Kaufman

On a winter night about four years ago I attended a rather unimpressive play on Broadway. On my walk home from the theater, I went into (the now deceased) Tower Records on Broadway and 67th. I loved that store! Not only did it have a fantastic Classical Section, but the staff was extremely knowledgeable.

I asked for a recording of the Diabelli Variations, a piece I’d read about recently. The salesman showed me several recordings and asked if I knew the story behind it. When I said no he proceeded to tell me: In 1819, Beethoven became obsessed with a trivial and insignificant waltz by Diabelli, and over the next four years composed a major work based on it. The story piqued my curiosity. Why would a man at the height of his creative powers choose to start a new work based on such a mundane little waltz? What was it that Beethoven heard in it, and why did it capture his attention for so long?

In seeking an answer, I started reading about this period in Beethoven’s life and found a book thankfully titled Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, written by William Kinderman. As a playwright (and not a musicologist) I was delighted to read this superb and insightful account of the variations, and of Beethoven’s compositional process. My journey into this mystery began with Kinderman’s book. Then I read another of his books, titled simply Beethoven, and I knew I wanted to write a play about this episode in Beethoven’s life. Soon after, I got to hear Kinderman’s CD recording of the variations. Much has been said about this recording by people much more knowledgeable than me. Personally, the possibility to hear Bill’s playing and read his masterful account of the music was an exquisite experience, and one of great influence on my play. His Diabelli book and this CD coalesce into one being. You hear his ideas in the music and you hear his music in his writing about it. Alfred Brendel has said that Bill “is a very rare bird”, with his extraordinary ability to combine performance and scholarship.

Soon however, it became clear that to write a play about these variations, I would need to learn much more about music than I knew at that time; I had to delve deeper into musicological ideas and concepts. It was then that I wrote an email to Bill and asked him if I could meet with him to ask a few questions about the piece. I’m sure he was baffled by the request: a New York playwright wanted to talk to him about a play he was writing about a decision made by Beethoven over two hundred years ago by a deaf composer. But he graciously agreed to meet me for a few hours.

I came to Urbana-Champaign and the strangest conversations started taking place. Bill was interested in theatre, I was interested in music. There were overlapping curiosities and language, but also great gaps in the things we could actually talk about. I didn’t know enough about music to follow everything Bill was telling me, and I needed to learn quickly. He didn’t know enough about theatre to follow everything I was asking.

But then a fortunate thing happened: I got to talk to Bill’s wife: Katherine Syer. Not only is Katherine a brilliant musicologist in her own right with great knowledge of Beethoven; she’s also an expert in theater and opera production. She specializes in historical stagings and current directorial trends. So in addition to her own insights into my questions, she was also extremely helpful in helping me bridge the gap to Bill’s brain.

I spent a great deal of time in their home talking about Beethoven, drinking wine, and getting to know their two daughters Anna and Marie. Between food, wine, long conversations, and a great deal of music, this ignorant playwright slowly gained the necessary tools to be able to go into a rehearsal room with actors to prod and dig into this beloved composer’s mind.

Bill and Katherine have guided me in deepening my understanding both of Beethoven and the nature of the act of composing. They also pushed me to broaden my own investigative process. At their suggestion I visited the Beethoven Archive in Bonn. They arranged for me to be able to see the original Beethoven sketches myself (something very few mortals are allowed to do).

What an incredible treat to be able to spend time with Beethoven’s notebooks! Looking at beautiful passages of music in his own handwriting, sometimes accentuated by food stains from the meal that he was eating as he jotted these ideas down, was an indescribable experience.

My gratitude to Bill Kinderman and Katherine Syer permeates the script of 33 Variations. It is no coincidence that my lead character’s name is Katherine and that she goes and spends a year in Bonn studying his sketches (as Bill once did). Katherine in the play is not Katherine Syer nor is she Bill Kinderman, but she’s a fictional character that owes a great debt to both of them.

I hope you enjoy this outstanding recording as much as I have! Who knows, maybe it will inspire you to write a play? It is a beautiful piece of Beethoven music performed by the man who knows more about it than anyone else in the world.


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