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Happy Birthday Diabelli!

Birthday celebrations are serious and noble undertakings, whether the celebrant be kiddie or adult. They invariably involve the setting aside of a moment in time to give a specific person his due, to recognize his identity. We toast our contemporaries, young and old alike, because they are precisely that: they live with us, contribute to us, and expect, now and then, to receive from us. Of greater cultural significance than the birthday is the anniversary, and the rounder and more venerable, the greater and more noteworthy the event. We mark centenaries of those whose ideas have been absorbed by society, and, since most honorees are no longer around for the party, we posthumously recognize them, sometimes simultaneously relieving our consciences for having failed to do so earlier. It is only proper for us to show our affection and gratitude for the lives and talents of the Bartoks (1981), Kodalys and Stravinskys (1982). But birthday party observers are quick to point out that centenaries barely qualify for serious cultural eminence, and that true anniversaries, as significant milestones of the millennium, begin at 200. Partiers are already rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of 1985, which will mark the 300th anniversary of Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti as well as the 250th of little Johann Christian Bach.

A 200th anniversary which will have been largely (and undeservedly) ignored is that of Anton Diabelli who was born in Mattsee near Salzburg on September 5, 1781. Although the biographic details of his 76 years have been all but forgotten, his contributions have been subliminally retained in much the same way as a popular tune whose author may be anonymous to all but a few cognoscenti. In fact, he made a striking mark for himself on at least three different dimensions: as composer, publisher, and popularizer.

At the age of seven, he was sent by his father to the Benedictine monastery Michaelbeuern for his schooling and musical training. It was there that he found his teacher and mentor, Michael Haydn, Franz Joseph's younger brother. At seventeen, he toyed with his first attempt at composition, a secular cantata on a text in German dialect. A year later, his Six Motets and Offertories, Op. 1 were published in Augsburg (1799). In a prefatory note to the edition, he wrote that he had tried to compose "a little piece that would be neither too high for the singer nor too hard for the violinist, simple throughout, and short (brevity being so in fashion today)." When Michael Haydn returned from a short trip to Vienna, brimming with enthusiasm and anecdotes about the big city, his student resolved that this is where he wished to be. Armed with a letter of introduction to his teacher's brother, Diabelli set out for Vienna in 1801. He soon succeeded in making a living by teaching piano and guitar to the sons and daughters of wellborn families to whom he had been referred by Joseph Haydn. The needs of his students led him to write little pieces which sounded big, works which were fun to play and didn't make virtuosic demands. His success in putting out such educational music, both studies and recital pieces, brought him to the attention of Viennese music publishers who, in addition to bringing out his own compositions, engaged him to do all sorts of arrangements and transcriptions, profitable "works made for hire." It wasn't long until it occurred to him that he would be better off with his own company than he was in the employ of others. It took some time, however, until his ambition could be realized. In the meanwhile, he continued to teach, compose, and do "hack work" for the Viennese publisher, S. A. Steiner, who made Diabelli's editorial and proof-reading services available to one of the house composers, one Ludwig van Beethoven. The two men actually became good friends. Beethoven exercised his verbal wit, referring to his new editor as "Diabolus" and "Generalprofos." The relationship continued to the end of Beethoven's life.

Diabelli was profoundly moved by the death, in 1806, of Michael Haydn to whom he felt so great a debt. His Opus 20 is a funeral march for guitar, dedicated to M. Haydn's memory. The year 1807 brought the guitar virtuoso Mauro Giuliani to Vienna and into Diabelli's circle of friends. Many of Giuliani's later guitar compositions were published under the Diabelli imprint. It was not until 1817 that he received governmental license to go into a modest business of his own, publishing and selling his own works, principally for church and school use. (His announcement in the Wiener Zeitung states: "My chief aim is to arouse reverence and spiritual uplifting by way of easily performable pieces and pretty melodies.") This step, however, permanently soured his relationship with his old boss, Steiner, who tried by various means to force his former hired hand out of business. Caught between the time and energy required to defend himself against litigation and bureaucracy, and the inescapable recognition that his self-publishing venture was too circumscribed to be profitable, he decided to go into a larger concern, publishing and selling the music of others as well as his own. After 14 months and 32 publications, he went into partnership with Peter Cappi. In the newly established firm of Cappi & Diabelli (1818), the table of organization was clearly defined: Cappi was in sole charge of business matters and Diabelli was "director of publications, " with sole discretion over the selection of manuscripts. He must have been doing well by now. Carl Czerny reported that he had bumped into Diabelli in the street, who told him that the publishing business had enabled him to give up his guitar teaching practice. Czerny was one of the composers in the C & D catalogue. Another was Franz Schubert, whose principal publisher Diabelli became. (The much-bruited tale of Diabelli's taking financial advantage of Schubert, reported by authorities from Schindler through Tovey to Slonimsky, may be open to question according to an excellent study by Leopold Kantner in Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fuer Salzburger Landeskunde, Salzburg 1958.)

By 1824, Diabelli wanted once again to be on his own and the firm of Cappi & Diabelli was liquidated, although the two men remained on good terms. Its successor was the firm of Anton Diabelli & Comp., whose new manager was a certain Anton Spina. The company's very first publication was to assure the survival of the Diabelli name for all time in man's collective unconscious. While still director of publications for C & D, Diabelli had invited no less than 51 eminent musicians living in Austria to write a variation each on a theme which he had himself written for a project, the purpose of which was to publish the whole collection for the benefit of the widows and orphans of the recent wars. Sir Donald Francis Tovey: "Beethoven was about to begin on the Ninth Symphony, and his first impulse was doubtless to advise Diabelli with Beethovenish precision to go Elsewhere. Instead of which, after keeping Diabelli on tenterhooks for a considerable time, he sent a contribution which had to be published in a separate volume. I have seen the volume containing the other fifty contributions. These range from one Assmayer to a person whose name I have forgotten, but it begins with Z and continues with several other consonants. One of the variations is among the earliest extant works of Liszt, who was at that time eleven. Another is by Schubert, and Schubert at his best. A third is by S. K. H. R., His Imperial Highness the Archduke Rudolph, who vindicates his musicianship by writing a fugue. I will not undertake to pass an examination in any of these variations except Schubert's, but the glance I have taken at the volume is quite enough to show that most of the composers, from the excellent Assmayer to the gentleman with a name like a sneeze, found Diabelli's theme a surprisingly plastic object." Thus, with his Opus 120, Beethoven immortalized his friend, about whom he had written to C. F. Peters: "Diabelli is a composer on his own hook, and must be regarded as more than merely my beneficiary." (For his part, Diabelli had written to Beethoven: ". . . I am convinced that your works have been created not for the moment but for eternity.") The theme which captivated the A-Z of Europe's composing community, even more memorable than the perky tunes of many sonatinas for piano duet:

Sonatinas for piano duet

At the zenith of his career, then, Anton Diabelli had much to recommend him. His renown is already evidenced by the inclusion of his name in two music encyclopedias, the Salzburger Lexikon of 1821 and the Austrian National Encyclopedia of 1835. His unshakeable commitment to music and musicians seemed to transcend the modesty of his own creative gift. Surrounding himself with the great composers of his time, he put the unusual combination of his musical and mercantile talents to good advantage by sharing his enthusiasms with the musical market of his time. In the very best sense of the word, he was a popularizer without whom many a greater gift might never have surfaced and many a passionate amateur might never have blossomed. And yet, his was the temperament of a bygone age, even in his own day. He was the typical Biedermeier mentality, the solid burger of conservatism, musical, religious, and political, swept up in a maelstrom of global change with which he was unable to cope. In a letter of 27 November 1848 to his brother Nepomuk, safe in the provincial town of Seekirchen near Salzburg, he vividly describes the revolutionary movement of 1848, the bombing of Vienna, the tumultuous mobs, the restoring of order by the Emperor's troups. Cowering with his wife and children in the cellar of his rented house, Diabelli clearly pictures himself as a man helplessly watching the world escape his very grasp.

Anton Diabelli at 60.

In a chain reaction of disaster, he becomes a forerunner of the corporate squeeze. His general manager, Carl Spina, forces him out of the business which he hands over to Spina Junior, who drops the Diabelli name before disappearing himself by selling out to Schreiber who, in turn, sells to the Hamburg publisher, Cranz. In his personal life, too, Diabelli reels from the deaths of his wife and six of their eight children. Even as a composer, returning once more to the institutions which nourished him as a boy, he offers to dedicate the manuscript of an offertory to the Emperor Ferdinand, only to have it returned ("return receipt requested") as material of "insufficient substance". At the age of 70, he applies for a governmental pension on the grounds of "arteriosclerotic senility," appearing at the court together with a testimonial physician. A month later, his petition is granted and he is made a ward of the physician, Dr. Sonnleithner. On January 9, 1852 he appeals to the ministry of culture at least to retain the title of royal music dealer, an appeal which is denied two days later. His is a slow and painful passing. It does not occur until 8 April 1858, and, while the Neue Wiener Musikzeitung, reporting his death under "cultural notes," refers to him as "the Nestor of piano composers whom an inestimable host of pianistic hopefuls owes a great debt," others betray their indifference even in their obituary observances. The notice in the Neue Berliner Musikzeitung states that his chief effectiveness was in making arrangements and editing for the publisher, Spina. "Haydn and Mozart were the objects of his reverence; for Beethoven he had little understanding; for the contemporaries he had absolutely none."

The last judgment of posterity had passed over Anton Diabelli. And yet ... here was a man whose own miniature creations gave (and continue to give) pleasure to "unfathomable hosts" of amateurs; who toiled in the service of God and man; who was the friend, counselor, and publisher of Titans; and who succeeded in bringing music — his own and others' to the minds and hearts of millions. He is not the only composer of lesser stature but nevertheless estimable gifts. The little Bachs, the Stamitzes and Spohrs, the Reineckes and Raffs — without them, we could have no Titans and no musical heritage. Happy birthday, Diabelli.

This article could not have been written without the invaluable assistance of Dr. Otto Biba of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien. It was Dr. Biba who referred us to Leopold Kantner's excellent study of Diabelli in the Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft fuer Salzburger Landeskunde, 98, Salzburg 1958.

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