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Goldberg Variations

Music for Night or Day: Bach’s Golden Goldbergs

In his memoirs, the cellist Pablo Casals remarked that he would begin every morning by playing a few of Johann Sebastian Bach’s preludes and fugues “as a sort of benediction.” The Baroque master also has a reputation for appealing to night owls unable to bring their day to a close— at least according to one of the best-known bits of Bachian lore, as relayed by his early biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel.

The work we know as the Goldberg Variations, according to Forkel, originated at the request of “Count Kayserling, formerly Russian Ambassador at the Court of the Elector of Saxony, who frequently resided in Leipzig.” Because the Count often suffered from “sleepless nights,” he asked Bach to provide “some clavier pieces” that his court harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756), could play “to cheer him a little” during these bouts of insomnia.


Capstone or New Departure?

Alas, as with so many of music history’s most enjoyable anecdotes, modern scholarship has mostly debunked Forkel’s account. The Bach expert Christoph Wolff points out that this sort of commission—for which Bach was said to have been gifted with “a golden goblet, filled with a hundred Louis d’or,” to express the Count’s deep satisfaction— would have entailed a formal dedication, yet the Goldbergs score lacks one.

Bach arranged to have it printed in 1741 by a publisher friend based in Nuremberg under the Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Practice”). Since Bach had published three earlier so-called Clavier-Übung collections for harpsichord or organ (beginning with the collected Six Partitas in 1731), Wolff takes the Goldbergs’s title page to imply a fourth such collection (though, unlike the first three, it is not enumerated as “part IV”). He argues that Bach specifically intended this set of variations to serve as the “grandiose finale” to his project of works dedicated to the potential of the solo keyboard.

That would be in keeping with the composer’s characteristically encyclopedic thoroughness, since the variation format was a genre Bach had largely left untouched until then. Moreover, notes Wolff, the work’s intensely virtuosic demands are hard to square with the claim that the Goldbergs could have been played by, well, Goldberg, however precocious a musician he was: in 1741, the young harpsichordist would have been only 14.

Not that Wolff is by any means the final word on the origin of the Goldbergs. Another eminent scholar, Robert L. Marshall, regards the variations not as a capstone to a vast project but rather as “a new departure…at the threshold of Bach’s last creative period, beginning the series of formidable and increasingly severe instrumental cycles.”

In this context, it’s worth noting that Mahan Esfahani chose the Goldbergs as the start of a journey, not the culmination. Last December, he played them to launch his multi-year series of recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall that will survey all of Bach’s music for solo harpsichord. And it was with the Goldbergs that Esfahani made his debut at the BBC Proms in 2011—becoming the first artist in the history of the Proms to give a solo harpsichord recital. As to the benefit of performing the Goldbergs on the instrument for which Bach conceived them, Mahan Esfahani once stated in an interview: “The harpsichord enables you to hear much more subtlety, and it has a sensual quality.”


Refreshing the Spirit

The original title page itself contains this fuller description of the Goldbergs (the title that has been given to this work by posterity, not Bach):

Clavier-Übung, consisting of an aria with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Nuremberg, Balthasar Schmid, publisher.”

During his own lifetime, Bach acquired a reputation across Europe as a formidable virtuoso on the clavier and organ. It therefore makes sense that he would endeavor to “put a public face on his activities as a keyboard artist,” as Wolff describes it, by publishing various collections of his music for solo keyboard—and the Clavier-Übung compositions are among the very few works the composer personally published. (While the two volumes of The Well-Tempered Clavier circulated in manuscript format, they did not officially appear in print until well after the composer’s death.)

The Goldberg Variations in particular thus represent “the largest-scaled single keyboard work published at any time during the 18th century,” writes Marshall. We need to fast-forward to late Beethoven—the Diabelli Variations and the Hammerklavier Sonata— to encounter conceptions for solo keyboard that demonstrate a similar monumentality.   


“Every Intricacy That Artistry Could Produce”

The obituary for Bach co-written by his son Carl Philipp Emmanuel attempts to pinpoint the unique quality of his father’s creative genius. One passage contained in it might serve as a summary of the magic that infuses the Goldbergs: “He need only have heard any theme to be aware—it seemed in the same instant—of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it.”

This brings to mind Michelangelo’s capacity to perceive the finished statue embedded in a faceless block of marble. But where the sculptor would hone in on one ideal form imprisoned within the material, Bach approaches his theme as the infinitely malleable skeleton around which he builds up an endlessly captivating sequence of 30 personalities, each one distinctive.

There are 30 variations, but the Goldbergs comprises 32 sections: the entire work is framed on either end by a complete statement of the Aria, which in turn contains the “skeleton” that is the basis of the variations. Rather than the serene melody we hear in the right hand, with its intricate ornamentation, the essential matter that is varied is its harmonic progression, as conveyed by the descending bass line. This is closer to the Baroque paradigm of the chaconne, a sequence of variations over a recurring bass line, as opposed to the type of variations later evolved by Classical and Romantic composers. The scholar Peter Williams carries this idea even further by claiming that the Aria itself is variation No. 1.

The Aria has the character and triple meter associated with the dance known as the sarabande—a dignified dance type as practiced by Bach, who used it for the weightiest moments of his Cello Suites. The Aria extends over 32 measures, which are symmetrically divided into two halves of 16 measures, each of which in turn parses into two equal parts. Bach repeats each half immediately after it is played, in the Aria and for each of the 30 variations (though performers vary widely in the extent to which they follow all of these repeats). Harmonically, the Aria journeys from the tonic G major to E minor and back to G major.

This movement anticipates in microcosm the macrocosmic movement of the Goldbergs to a reprise of the Aria for the final part. It is a literal repeat—and yet this destination, once attained, feels light years removed from the innocence of its initial statement. Along with that paradox is the miraculous abundance of personalities and emotional states Bach unearths within this rigidly symmetrical structure of his 32-measure theme. Even the harmonic structure of the whole is remarkably confined: only three variations deviate from the anchor of G major to G minor: variations 15, 21, and 25. Yet from what might otherwise be a monotony-inducing unified scheme, Bach discloses revelatory variety, a wealth of differences.

“We must not forget that while Bach was no academic, he was certainly a thinking man,” writes Mahan Esfahani. “He confronted his spiritual and intellectual questions, stated his vision of the universe, and perhaps even grappled with the joys and disappointments of his life through the medium of the written note.” This understanding helps explain the sense of profound, inexhaustible meaning that listeners find in this music, quite apart from the structural and virtuosic intricacy of its construction. Yet even a basic grasp of that intricacy enhances our pleasure when we encounter the Goldbergs.


Patterns and Variety

Bach lays out his 30 variations in ten groups, each consisting of three distinct types. First (Nos. 1, 4, 7, etc.) is a wide-ranging survey of different genres—invention, passepied, gigue, fughetto, aria, and so on. At the midpoint, for example (No. 16), Bach introduces a French Overture, marking a sort of new beginning for the second half. The second variation in each group of three turns toward a more overt display of virtuosity, making use of hand-crossing and the two manuals Bach specifies on the title page of the published score.

Each third variation treats the theme as a two-part canon, but with a clear pattern of steadily increasing intervals that define where the second voice in the canon enters: No. 3 is a canon at the unison (both voices enter on the same note), No. 6 is a canon at the second (the voice entries are separated by one whole step), No. 9 at the third, etc. Yet this clear-cut pattern encompasses a high degree of individualism for each of the variations. These have their own tempo, rhythmic impetus, mood, and ornamentation. The Goldberg Variations stages these dramatic contrasts across the unifying devices of its large-scale structure. Infectious joie de vivre coexists with the most indescribable emotional pain (the minor-key Adagio variation No. 25, which Wanda Landowska unforgettably called “the black pearl” of the set).

Variation No. 30 overrides the pattern of canons-increasing-by-intervals, establishing an altogether new tone. Nos. 28 and 29 start to break the mold, in that No. 28 is a toccata calling for highly virtuosic hand-crossing and is complemented by the grandeur of No. 29, which seems to mark a culmination. Rather than a canon at the tenth (as it would be were the pattern merely to continue), the final variation, No. 30, is a quodlibet: a potpourri applying the art of counterpoint to weave together a sampling of tunes familiar from folk or popular music. Bach selected multiple tunes here, only two of which have been identified: Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west ‘(I’ve been away from you so long”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away”).

According to Forkel (whom we can rely on here), reunions of the musical Bach family would of course involve singing. After striking up a pious chorale, “they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment.” This improvisational character is the heart of the quodlibet idea: “not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.”

Muses Esfahani, “In nine canons, we have climbed the steps to perfection (9 = 3 x 3, 3 being the ‘’perfect’’ number of the Trinity …),  and what is our reward in Heaven? We get to see our family. Maybe Bach remembered a song from his childhood, or a joke told by his brothers, or imagined—as adults—his children who died in infancy. And the repetition of the aria at the end? Briefly allowed to see his family in Paradise, our Bach wakes up. It was all a dream after all…”

—Notes by Thomas May