Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations BWV 988
Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen was published in 1741 as the final instalment of his Clavier-Übung series of keyboard works. This monumental exploration of the variation form ranks as the largest single keyboard composition published in the 18th century, in which Bach displays his command not only of the popular musical styles of his day, but also of the most advanced virtuoso techniques for playing the harpsichord, not to mention his genius in the arcane skill of writing canons at any given interval.
After its publication, a change in musical taste toward simpler, more transparent textures meant that the Goldberg Variations were largely forgotten, although Beethoven appears aware of them when composing his Diabelli Variations and Brahms his Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel. They entered the 20th century as the privileged domain of the feathery flock of harpsichordists, with Wanda Landowska (1879-1959), who first recorded the set in 1933, as Mother Hen to the brood.
For big-name pianists, though, the scaled-down, intellectually concentrated sound world of the Goldberg Variations, with their ‘sewing machine’ rhythms, probing explorations of chromatic harmony and awkward hand-crossings, was considered too ‘antiquarian’, too ‘esoteric’ for the piano repertoire. Until June 1955, that is, when a 22-year-old Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, walked into the New York studios of Columbia Records to record his debut album—an album that became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time.
What Glenn Gould revealed, in a career bookended by his landmark recordings of the Goldberg Variations, was the emotional richness and feverish excitement that lay hidden in this much-neglected work. Like an art-restorer cleansing the Sistine Chapel of the grime and haze that had built up over centuries, in his 1955 recording Gould brought to a public inured to the warmly pedalled sound of Romantic piano music a dazzling clarity of texture and kaleidoscopic range of tone colours, accomplished by the fingers alone. In his 1981 recording, in which the tempo of each variation is regulated by a “constant rhythmic reference point,” he revealed the intellectual depth of the work, and the breadth of interpretive possibilities which it offers to the performing pianist.
Glenn Gould single-handedly placed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the standard repertoire – and not only of the piano. According to the Goldberg Variations Discography website, since 1955 there have been more than 600 recordings made of the Goldbergs, including versions for organ, for string trio and for saxophone quartet. While performance by a historically informed recorder ensemble would no longer be a novelty, a breathless world has still not heard this work on kazoos or in car commercials. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.
The theme that Bach wrote for his variations is a sarabande tendre, identified by its stately rhythmic profile, recurring emphasis on the second beat of bar, and highly expressive style. Floridly ornamented in the French manner, its 32 measures unfold in the traditional two-part form of a dance movement, with each half repeated. These repeated sections, as in a dance suite, provide an opportunity for the performer to vary the performance by means of changes in dynamics, articulation and ornamentation.
The harmonic rhythm of the Aria is deliberately slow, one chord to the bar, which allows for maximum freedom in spinning out a wide variety of variations, since these are based not on the melodic content of the Aria, but rather on its bass-line and underlying harmonies, in the manner of a chaconne.
There is a large-scale symmetry in the way that Bach arranges his variations. First of all, the set is rounded out by the Aria’s appearance both at the beginning and at the conclusion of the work. Secondly, the set divides evenly into two halves. The first half ends on an enigmatic open 5th at the conclusion of the plaintive Variation 15. The second half begins anew, with a bang, on a robust G-major chord that begins the No. 16 French overture variation. (Many a performance will see a pause inserted at this juncture, emphasizing the contrast between the two halves of the work.)
Thirdly, the 30 variations are organized into ten groups of three, each group containing: (1) a dance or genre piece, (2) a virtuoso display piece, bright in mood, and most often featuring a number of hand-crossings, and (3) a two-voice canon, which is to say a round, in which a melody is accompanied by itself, entering a set number of beats after its initial appearance, and beginning a set interval above its initial note. In keeping with Bach’s systematic approach, these canons, spaced out every three variations, begin at the unison and progress to the ninth in Variation 27 (the only canon not accompanied by a running bass line by way of harmonic support). Such a layout ensures variety in the succession of variations, and is aided by the extraordinarily wide range of meters used: 3/4, 2/4, 6/8, 12/8, 9/8 etc. There is even one variation, No. 26, in which one hand plays in 3/4 while the other is in 18/16.
The display-oriented virtuoso variations feature two kinds of hand-crossing: the Italian type, à la Scarlatti, in which one hand crosses over and above the other to catch a note perilously distant from its home turf (e.g., Variations 5 and 14); and the French type, à la Couperin, in which the running melodic lines of the two hands cross over each other in the same patch of keyboard terrain, risking a digital derailment of both (e.g., Variations 8 and 11). The latter are usually indicated by Bach as being played on both manuals of the harpsichord, but alas! such an expedient is not available to the struggling pianist.
The inclusion of canon variations helps to mask the recurring regularity of the Aria’s four-bar phrases and ground bass, repeated in various degrees of elaboration in each variation. Moreover, the canons are not always straightforward rounds. Variations 12 and 15 each feature a canon inversus, in which the leading voice is accompanied by itself – turned upside down!
The emotional heart of the work comes in Variation 25 in the minor mode, described by Wanda Landowska as the work’s “crown of thorns.” At an Adagio tempo, it is the longest of the set, although it has the same number of measures as the other variations. Its extraordinary expressiveness and aching beauty derive from the combination of its plangent melodic leaps, agonizing chromaticisms and halting syncopations.
After this variation begins a build-up in energy as the work races towards its climax, with sonorous written-out trills invading the inner voices of Variation 28 and hammering fists of chords chopping between the hands in Variation 29.
The Quodlibet & Aria da capo
According to the pattern already established, one would expect a canon at the 10th in Variation 30, but here Bach surprises us with musical joke, a quodlibet (Latin for “what you please”) that fits two popular ditties into the harmonic scheme of the Aria.
The two overlapping folk tunes that Bach shoe-horns into service over the ground bass of his Aria are the urgent love lyric Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (I have been away from you so long, come here, come here) and the anti-vegetarian anthem Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I would have stayed longer).
Coming just before the end of the work, there is something of the chorale in this final variation, something good-natured and healing that gathers all hearts in song, as at the end of a church cantata or Lutheran religious service, to which the final Aria da capo provides a contemplative and serene postlude.
Donald G. Gíslason 2022