May 9, 2020

Behind the Musik: Bach Goldberg Variations

Photo: Nautilus Twirl, Elizabeth Hesp / Elizabeth Hesp Fine Art

Program Notes by Charlotte Nediger

In 1741, Bach published the fourth and final volume of his Clavier-Übung [Keyboard Practice] “consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with two keyboards.” As in the other three volumes of the series, he added that the work was “prepared for the delight of the souls of lovers of music.” Bach’s first biographer, J.N. Forkel, suggested that the work was commissioned by Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, to be played for him during his frequent bouts of insomnia by his young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The story was undoubtedly fabricated—there is no dedication to Keyserlingk, and the virtuoso variations, except perhaps for their length, are an unlikely cure for insomnia! Forkel’s story, however, published in 1802, was popular enough to give the variations the title that has remained ever since.

Goldberg himself was but a boy of fourteen when the variations were published, but was a child prodigy who went on to a successful career as a virtuoso harpsichordist, so the attribution is not inappropriate. The variations are among the most technically demanding works ever written for the harpsichord. Bach uses the full resources of the instrument, and includes a number of variations requiring complex hand-crossings, unique in Bach’s output.

Virtuosity and technique aside, what is most remarkable about these variations is their individual ingenuity and their combined unity. Any virtuosity and mastery Bach demands of the player pales in comparison with the virtuosity and mastery he demonstrates as a composer. The entire set of variations is based on a 32-bar bass-line and its implicit harmonies. There is no theme as such. The aria which precedes the variations—and which is repeated unaltered at the end—is simply a sarabande written over this bass-line. The melody of the sarabande is entirely forgotten during the variations, a fact which makes its return at the end all the more remarkable.

The Air of the Goldberg Variations is a sarabande, one of the dances common to the baroque suite. In Bach’s solo works for harpsichord, violin, and cello, it is the most expressive movement of the suite, often contemplative and tender.

What follows the aria is a unique and breathtaking array of diverse movements composed over a common fundament. Much has been written about the overall organization of the work and Bach’s fascination with numbers. The work has strong binary patterns: the 32 movements are built on a 32-note bass-line; each of them is in binary form (i.e. two halves, in this case of equal length, each played twice); and all phrases throughout are of two, four, or eight bars length. The entire work is divided in half, the first half starting with the aria and ending with an unusual fade-away at the end of Variation 15, the second half starting afresh with a bold French overture, and ending with the restatement of the aria.

At the same time, the 30 variations are strongly divided in groups of three. The last of each group is a strict canon: one voice begins, the second voice entering a few beats later with precisely the same music. The first is a canon at the unison, meaning the second voice enters at the same pitch, as we do in simple folk rounds. In subsequent canons, the second voice enters a tone higher, then a third higher, etc, until we reach the canon at the ninth. Bach sets all of these canons, except that at the ninth, in three parts, with the two imitative voices played over an independent bass-line.

Every third variation is in the form of a canon, the name given to a compositional technique in which two or more people play or sing the same music but start at different times, as in the children’s song “Row, row, row your boat.” Bach excelled at this technique, writing canons that are so intricate that the listener may be unaware of the imitation.

Preceding the canon in each group of three variations is an arabesque-like movement—a virtuoso display of “hands at play”—and a genre piece, that is, a dance, a little fugue, and so on. In place of the tenth canon Bach substitutes a boisterous quodlibet, a German tradition of simultaneously singing various popular tunes. In this case Bach offers several tunes, among them “Kraut und Ruben haben mich vertrieben” (Cabbage and beets have driven me away) and another “Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest” (I’ve been so long away from you), arranging them in a solid four-part setting over what is the clearest statement of the fundamental bass-line in the entire work. The aria, “so long away,” returns immediately after, a gesture both simple and remarkably touching. Not a note of the aria is altered, but its effect on the listener is utterly different. Simply stated, it has changed from a greeting to a farewell.

With the Goldberg Variations, Bach completed his thorough and systematic exploration of writing for the keyboard that began with the Two-and Three-Part Inventions and Well-Tempered Clavier, and ended with the four volumes of the Clavier-Übung. He also began his great musical testament of “speculative” works in which a single theme is taken on a complex musical journey, works that include the Musical Offering, Canonic Variations, and theArt of the Fugue. In the Goldberg Variations we have a piece that in many ways is the perfect balance between art and science. Theorists can spend years analyzing the work. Keyboard players can spend a lifetime exploring its endless facets. Music lovers can listen to it for their souls’ delight.

Watch our Music Director Elisa Citterio's new arrangement of Variations no. 1 and no. 30. below. 

Photo: Nautilus Twirl, Elizabeth Hesp / Elizabeth Hesp Fine Art

Bach Goldberg Variations
Charlotte Nediger
Elisa Citterio