Johann Sebastian Bach
GOLDBERG VARIATIONS BWV 988
Such was Bach’s mastery of his musical materials that he was often tempted to explore a particular genre or compositional technique in a systematic way by providing a quasi-exhaustive compendium of its possibilities. Fugue, for example, is represented in the two books of The Well-Tempered Clavier (1722, 1744), both sets presenting a prelude and fugue in each of the major and minor keys, and in The Art of the Fugue (unfinished at his death), with its 14 fugues and 4 canons all derived from a single theme in D minor.
Similarly encyclopedic in scope and ambition is Bach’s Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen, published in 1741 and known today as the Goldberg Variations. This monumental exploration of the variation form ranks as the largest single keyboard composition published in the 18th century and in it, Bach displays his command of the popular musical styles of his day, the most advanced virtuoso techniques for playing the harpsichord, and the arcane skill of writing canons at intervals ranging from the unison to the ninth.
The work gets its name from an anecdote told by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818) in his 1802 biography of Bach. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, we are told, was a young harpsichordist in the employ of Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who frequently resided in Leipzig where Bach was Cantor of the city’s Thomaskirche. Among the young Goldberg’s chores was the task of easing the Count’s insomnia by playing to him from an adjoining room on the many nights when he found himself sleepless. The Count is said to have asked Bach for a contribution to Goldberg’s repertoire of night-watch pieces and the “Goldberg Variations” were born.
Setting aside the dubious compliment of commissioning a work expressly designed to induce sleep, musicologists have raised a collective eyebrow of skepticism at the numerous improbabilities in this account, noting how the title page of the first edition lacks a dedicatory inscription to the Count – in breach of established custom – and the troubling fact that when it first appeared in print, the young Goldberg was a mere stripling of 14.
After publication, a change in musical taste toward simpler, more transparent textures meant that the Goldberg Variations were largely neglected in the latter half of the 18th century. And they fared little better in the 19th, 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.
In the Golden Age of Pianism before the Second World War, the public was enamoured of big-name pianists such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Josef Hoffmann, whose careers were predicated on concert programs filled with expansively emotional, sonorously room-filling works from the Romantic era. 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’ and too ‘esoteric’ for the piano repertoire by most pianists. Until June 1955, when a 22-year-old Canadian pianist 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 Gould’s 1955 recording brought to a public inured to the warmly pedalled sound of Romantic piano music a dazzling clarity of texture and a 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 that 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, string trio, and saxophone quartet. While a 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 in G major, identifiable as a sarabande tendre 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. A 16-bar opening section leads from the tonic (G major) to a concluding cadence in the dominant (D major), and is then repeated. The second 16-bar section, also repeated, begins in the dominant and works its way back to end on a final cadence in the tonic. The repeated sections, both in the aria and in the variations, 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, reflecting that of the Aria itself. First of all, the set is rounded out by a repeat, at its conclusion, of the Aria with which it began. Secondly, the set divides evenly into two halves, the first half ending on an enigmatic open 5th that concludes the plaintive Variation 15, the second half beginning with a bang on a robust G-major chord that begins the French overture variation, No. 16. (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). Usually, the latter are 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!
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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 derives 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. According to the pattern already established, one would expect a canon at the 10th in Variation 30, but here Bach surprises us with a musical joke, a quodlibet (Latin for “what you please”) that fits two popular ditties into the harmonic scheme of the Aria. Simultaneously playing or singing melodies that fit together harmonically – often songs on distinctly salty, secular themes – was a congenial and witty pastime at Bach family get-togethers. A modern equivalent might be playing Dvorak’s Humoresque in G flat while singing “Way, down upon the Swan-eee River.”
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 at the very end of the work, there is something of the chorale in this variation, something good-natured and healing that gathers all hearts in song, as at the end of a church cantata or Lutheran religious service.
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It remains only for the Aria to echo once again in our ears, repeated note for note as it was at the beginning. This gesture of return, too, has spiritual echoes that are intuitively felt, but difficult to put into words.
Bach inhabited a world made comprehensible to him by his Lutheran faith, a world in which the divine presence penetrated every piece of Creation. In the Goldberg Variations, Bach paints in sonic form the secular and the sacred world – the secular through the music of popular genres and dance forms, and the divine through canons and the miraculous geometric transforms of their musical themes.
The melodic voice of the Aria, returning once again to our ears, seems small and vulnerable with respect to what had come before, and we with it. In this return to the work’s beginnings, we hear – and share – the humble voice of a pious man before his God.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018