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Program Notes: Sir András Schiff performs the Goldberg Variations

Bach’s Clavier-Übung  (1726-1741)

The works on this evening’s recital are selected from Bach’s collection of keyboard pieces published in four parts between 1726 and 1741 under the collective title Clavier-Übung (keyboard exercise). In this collection Bach systematically lays out for amateur and professional keyboard-players alike his mastery of the genres, compositional techniques, and national styles used in the keyboard music of his time.

Bach’s self-financed publishing project from the first half of the 18th century has much in common with the promotional strategies of contemporary musicians today who establish a YouTube channel to make their music more widely known, to establish their ‘brand’ in the mind of the public, and to ‘monetize’ their talents in the wider marketplace.

This evening’s recital presents the second and fourth instalments of Bach’s Clavier-Übung series. Part II explores the national styles of France and Italy in the Overture in French Style and Italian Concerto. Part IV gives us a monumentally exhaustive exploration of the variation form in the celebrated Goldberg Variations.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Italian Concerto in F major  BWV 971

Baroque music was all about national styles and Bach learned the Italian style by copying out and transcribing the works of composers such as Vivaldi, Albinoni and Torelli during his early years of employment in Weimar (1708-1717). It was this knowledge that he applied in composing his Concerto nach Italienischem Gusto (Concerto after the Italian Taste) included in the second part of his Clavier-Übung published in 1735.

To compose a concerto meant reproducing in some way the textural contrast between the solo instrument (or instruments) and the orchestral tutti on which the ritornello form of the Italian concerto relied for its forward progress. It was for this reason that Clavier-Übung II was written exclusively for the two-manual harpsichord with its possibility of creating dynamic contrasts by means of hopping up and down between keyboards. This could be done with both hands at once, or one hand at a time, allowing for a wide range of effects to be achieved.

The two protagonists in Bach’s Italian Concerto are clearly audible in the first movement, in which the ‘orchestra’ which opens the movement is given a fuller more resonant texture by dint of block chords and a wider range in the bass while the part of the ‘soloist’ is written in a smaller range, higher up, peppered with smaller note values and occasional ornamentation.

The distinction is even clearer still in the slow movement in which the role of the ‘orchestra’ is given entirely to the left hand, its ostinato pattern of repeated thirds and long pedal notes a strangely austere accompaniment to a right hand ‘soloist’ spinning out long strands of highly ornamented melody.

The Presto finale returns to the ritornello form of alternation between the louder, fuller texture of the ‘orchestra,’ obsessed with its dramatic octave leap downwards and swift follow-up run, in continual dialogue with a more nimble ‘soloist’ more occupied with broken chord passagework and harmonic sequences.


Johann Sebastian Bach
Overture in French Style in B minor  BWV 831

The 11-movement Overture in French Style from Clavier-Übung II counts as the longest suite that Bach ever wrote. Beefing up its imposing heft is the grand and imposing French overture movement that opens the work and gives it its name. Brilliantly encrusted with the bright ornamental flourishes that characterize the French school of harpsichord playing, the French overture lurches between chordal ‘poses’ in a jerky sequence of dotted and double-dotted rhythms, linked together by exhilarating run-ups and other fast-darting upbeat embellishments. The tone is one of pomp and grandeur that then yields to the more animated and playful—but learned—texture of its fugal middle section. Bach adds weight to the movement as a whole by repeating this middle section and its following reprise of the opening material.

The 10 dance movements that follow are comparatively slender by comparison, but remarkable for their variety of moods and their sheer number. Each is in binary form, comprising two roughly equal halves. Repeats of each half allow the performer scope to vary the performance on a second run-through and tastefully ‘riff’ on the printed score. Additional opportunities for varied repetition come in the ‘double dances,’ the passepieds, gavottes and bourées, which appear in contrasting pairs, the second dance acting as a kind of ‘middle section’ between the presentation of the first dance and its reprise at the end.

Needless to say, these are not pieces meant to accompany dancing but rather imaginative recreations of these dance genres that reproduce the general character and identifying rhythmic signature of each. That said, the dancelike quality of the slower more serious dances can be hard to discern beneath the thick contrapuntal weave of polyphonic conversation in which they are set. This is especially true of the flowing but irregularly phrased Courante and the harmonically rich but melodically wayward Sarabande.

A more toe-tapping pulse and regularity of phrase structure is generally to be found in the ‘double dances,’ and especially in the light skipping steps of what would normally be the final piece in the set, the Gigue. But Bach gives us a bonus piece to close off this suite, a strutting and punchy Echo intended to tickle the ear with rapid-fire alternations of soft and loud ‘echo’ effects.

These were to be created by means of daring leaps between the two keyboards of the dual-manual harpsichord for which this suite was written. But given that the modern concert grand has only one keyboard, contemporary audiences will have to use their imaginations to experience the dare-devil, Cirque du Soleil thrill of the acrobatic ending that Bach had in mind for the performers of his day.


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 Aria

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.

The Variations

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