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Goldberg Variations

Simone Dinnerstein's acclaimed 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations set a new standard for piano performance, and her eloquent discourse on the piece’s many facets reveals a deep understanding of its interconnected musical details.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations has been a focus of pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s performing life for some two decades. Her acclaimed 2007 recording of the piece set a new standard for piano performance, and her eloquent discourse on the piece’s many facets reveals a deep understanding of its interconnected musical details. Her relationship with the work has grown through collaborations with a choreographer and with dancers. In speaking of the Goldbergs, Dinnerstein has compared Bach’s compositional sleights of hand to the optical virtuosity of Renaissance painters, such as the “memento mori” skull in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors. She has, further, called the Goldbergs Bach’s Odyssey, referring to Homer’s timeless epic poem.

Dinnerstein’s multiple media of engagement—literature, painting, and dance—with this peerless keyboard work underline her sense of its scope, which encompasses not only its architectural, musical intricacies, which are myriad, but also its deep humanity and its “place” in the physical body of the performer and the listener. Like an epic, the Goldbergs are steeped in references to existing genres, styles, and tropes from the past, hints of the familiar and the known interwoven with the new and complex fabric of Bach’s invention. The variety of stories and voices within Dante’s Commedia combined with the geometries of the poet’s cosmological scheme, for example, make for a nice analogy (though certainly not a model) for Bach’s work, not just in the Goldbergs but in many of his other omnibus pieces, such as The Art of Fugue and A Musial Offering.

Like an epic, the Goldbergs are steeped in references to existing genres, styles, and tropes from the past, hints of the familiar and the known interwoven with the new and complex fabric of Bach’s invention. 

Although many (including his Leipzig employers) considered Bach somewhat old-fashioned, he was a master not only of the archaic styles of Palestrina and Schütz but also of a dazzling overview of recent and contemporary genres, such as the Italian Antonio Vivaldi’s newly minted concerto style (which Bach mined in part by directly transcribing Vivaldi’s scores). Bach clearly had a predilection to explore an idea (genre, style) to its furthest imaginable ends, but this approach also served a practical purpose, that of creating a portfolio to demonstrate the range of his craft for potential employers. The Brandenburg Concertos, written probably 1715-1721 and presented to the Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt, may have been one such calling card, showing Bach’s transformation of the young genre of the concerto grosso into unique artistic works of the highest sensibility. Bach invented the genre of the accompanied keyboard concerto with his Brandenburg Concerto No. 5.

At around the same time, he wrote and compiled the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the six suites for solo cello, and the sonatas and partitas for solo violin—all aiming at comprehensive contemporary views of both compositional and instrumental technique. (Transcending their time, these works are still today considered standard reference for composers and performers.) In 1723, when he took on the duties of Kantor at Leipzig’s Thomaschule and general music director for the city’s main churches, Bach embarked on an all-encompassing embrace of the church cantata form. In the 1730s, following his assumption of the position of director of the collegium musicum, a secular concert-giving organization, he immersed himself in the genre of the accompanied keyboard concerto, writing works specifically for his musical sons to perform.

For all of Bach’s periodic exhaustive immersion in particular genres, in his final decade or so his interest in musical consolidation, mirroring an effort at the consolidation of his entire career, increased noticeably, echoing the period of similar activity in the early 1720s. In the late 1730s, his completion and final assembly of the B minor Mass proved Bach’s mastery of a pillar of music-historical significance. He revisited earlier works with an eye toward publication as well as beginning new projects, such as The Art of the Fugue and the Goldberg Variations, that aimed to illustrate the highest possible attainment of the art of counterpoint and imitative writing. A third such work, A Musical Offering, came about almost incidentally in 1747, following a visit (which scholar Christoph Wolff calls “one of the most notable events in Bach’s otherwise unspectacular life”) to the court of Prussian King Frederick the Great.

This combination of erudite and down-to-earth, characteristic of Bach, is a trait he shares with so many great artists throughout the centuries.

The Goldberg Variations take their name from Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a keyboard student of Bach’s who may have been their intended recipient and who was employed by a certain Count Kaiserling (or Keyserlingk). The Variations were published in 1741 as a “Keyboard-study consisting of an aria with different variations for harpsichord with 2 manuals.” Bach had already produced three previous volumes he called “keyboard study” or Clavier-Übung: the six keyboard Partitas (Book I); the solo Italian Concerto and the French Overture (Book II); and the preludes, fugues, and chorales of the “Organ Mass” (Book III). Clearly Bach considered this piece part of that larger project of etudes.

Bach specifies for the piece a then-common two-manual harpsichord, that is, a harpsichord with two keyboards (and two sets of strings), giving the performer three different choices of timbre (one manual, the other, or both) and creating possibilities for greater clarity in the denser canons or for changing the character in repeats. For the pianist, delineation of voices by timbre is replaced with delineation by dynamics or loudness, which can be controlled in exquisite detail on a piano. On a purely logistical level, hand-crossing passages that would be straightforward on a two-keyboard instrument can become quite tricky on a piano.

The Goldberg Variations is forty to forty-five minutes of music, including the repeats that Bach indicates brings the whole to nearly ninety minutes. Following the rather sedate, gentle Aria, the mood is predominantly buoyant, with the few minor-key variations cementing, rather than undermining, the G major tonality throughout. The display of counterpoint, particularly imitative counterpoint in combination with free counterpoint in another voice, is Bach’s fundamental technical goal; to make the technique musically artful is his genius. The opening Aria—the apparent “theme” of the Goldberg Variations—is a slow dance, the sarabande. It’s also a red herring: the basis of the variations isn’t the pretty, singable tune of the Aria but rather the contours of its bass line and the harmonic implications thereof. The Aria is presented at the beginning and end of the piece, bookending the thirty variations, for thirty-two total movements; the Aria and each variation have thirty-two bars (not counting repeats). Each movement has two clear sections of sixteen bars each; likewise, the piece as a whole can be seen as two halves, split between the fifteenth and sixteenth variations, with the Aria at either end suggesting a mirror image.

The display of counterpoint, particularly imitative counterpoint in combination with free counterpoint in another voice, is Bach’s fundamental technical goal; to make the technique musically artful is his genius. 

Style and contrapuntal scheme, but not necessarily mood, change from movement to movement, and there is a general increase in complexity or density of event over the course of the piece. In the harpsichord original, the two-manual movements are more frequent later in the piece, presumably both for timbral delineation and ease of hand movement in thick contrapuntal passages. There are a number of signposts that group the thirty variations. Every third variation is a canon of a different sort, which is to say the second voice imitates, removed by a few beats, the music of the first. The first of these (the fourth movement, Variation 3) is a canon at the unison, with the imitative voice entering on the same pitch and playing the same notes as the first voice. The second canon (Variation 6) is a canon at the second, with the imitative voice joining a whole tone (major second) or half-tone, depending on the scale, higher, one beat later. The ninth variation and third canon is at the third, and so on with the pitch interval growing larger, until we have, in Variation 27, a canon at the ninth (an octave plus a tone).

Variation 15 is a canon at the fifth, and it has a special place in the piece: the two voices are in mirror canon, which suggests the overall mirror image (more conceptual than literal) of the two big halves of the Goldbergs. The presenting voice in the left hand is a falling scale, and its imitation is a rising scale in the right hand. (As Simone Dinnerstein has noted, if the music were flipped over on the music stand, it would in fact read the same upside-down as right-side up—hence her comparison of Bach with painting’s optical illusions.) There are three types of canon: the first three (variations 3, 6, and 9) are of a type, nos. 4-6 (variations 12, 15, and 18) a more complicated type (e.g., the mirror canon of no. 15), and nos. 7-9 (variations 21, 24, and 27), the most intricate, are multi-subject canons—those with more than one tune being imitated. Variation 30, finally, is a special kind of complex contrapuntal combining piece called a Quodlibet, the thorniest, most exuberant hedge in this wonderful maze. This movement is also a rich joke: there are quotes from a number of German traditional songs worked into the texture, including “Cabbage and turnips” (a saying also meaning “topsy-turvy”), “I’ve been away from you so long,” and others.

The combination of erudite and down-to-earth, characteristic of Bach, is a trait he shares with so many great artists throughout the centuries. This is further established by his use of familiar dance types and established genres, similar to the use of familiar forms in, say, the cello suites (sarabande, gigue). The Aria, as noted, is a sarabande, Variation 7 a gigue, Variation 10 is a fughetta (a little fugue), Variation 25 an adagio, which for Bach denoted a particular mood. Clearly marking the start of the second half of the piece is Variation 16, “Ouverture,” a piece in the French overture genre with its majestic dotted-note figurations in the first section followed by a faster second half. The shift from the chromatic mirror canon of Variation 15 is the most dramatic change of style in the whole work. Such markers allow us to hear the symmetries as well as the expansion and growing richness over the course of the Goldbergs—an integration of form and artistic expression of which J.S. Bach was the greatest master.

Notes by Robert Kirzinger

 

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