About this Recording
9.70009 - BACH, J.S.: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (Wilson)

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988


Bach contributed masterpieces to most of the variation forms current in his day: the Passacaglia, Canonic Variations, and chorale partitas for organ, the Chaconne for solo violin, the choral passacaglia of the Crucifixus of the B minor Mass; even the Art of Fugue is a huge variation ricercar. Yet of variations for harpsichord or clavichord he wrote only two sets—few enough, considering the great popularity of variations and Bach’s striking devotion to the instruments. His first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, touches on the reason for this when he speaks of “variations, which, on account of the constant sameness of the fundamental harmony, he had hitherto considered as an ungrateful task.”

The main motor of Bach’s music is the development of a limited number of melodic figures through highly dynamic harmonies. In baroque variations, where the number of bars remains identical, the situation is reversed: the static harmony compels a search for ever-changing melodic formulas, and, to give each movement the motivic unity baroque esthetics required, each variation is usually based on a sole motif. This system, says Forkel, Bach found too confining.

There is an early trial effort, the beautiful Aria variata alla maniera italiana, BWV 989. Then, after an unfinished fragment in the first Clavierbüchlein for his second wife Anna Magdalena (ca. 1722), he turned his back on harpsichord variations until twenty years later, when he took them up again with a vengeance.

The famous story of how he came to do so is in Forkel. The Russian ambassador to the Dresden court, Count Kayserling, had in his entourage a brilliant young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, whom Bach taught in nearby Leipzig. “The count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights...He was never weary of hearing them, and for a long time, when the sleepless nights came, he used to say: ‘Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.’ Bach was, perhaps, never so well rewarded for any work as this: the Count made him a present of a golden goblet, filled with a hundred Louis d’ors...It must be observed that, in the engraved copies of these variations, there are some important errata, which the author has carefully corrected in his copy.”

The last sentence was sensationally confirmed in 1975, when Bach’s copy of the original edition came to light. Besides corrections and many added ornaments, it contained fourteen puzzle-canons on the first eight bass-notes of the Aria, the discovery of which more than doubled the number of his known canons. One of them appears in his late Leipzig portrait, where he peers out at us with a humorously challenging expression, inviting us to try our luck at solving the riddle of a canon triplex a 6 Voc. He even had it separately printed, like a calling card. His pride was justified, for no other music ever written so resembles the harmonia mundi—the theme, its mid-section, and its falling fourth plus inversion, in simultaneous triple canon with their inversions, like mirrors reflecting mirrors into infinity.

The variations themselves are a brilliant fusion of Italianate virtuosity—Bach certainly had seen sonatas by his contemporary Domenico Scarlatti—and the prevailing French influences in Leipzig. Gottsched had turned the city into “a little Paris”; Voltaire, travelling in 1750 to Potsdam and Frederick, wrote home: “I find myself in France. German is spoken here only by soldiers and mule-drivers”. Looking across the Pleisse from his Komponierstube, Bach saw a French formal garden. The Aria itself, a Polonaise, a nod to Kayserling’s Polish homeland, is a heavily French-ornamented conversation galante straight out of a novel by Madame de Lafayette.

The layout of the Goldberg Variations suggests, in its numerical rigour and strict symmetries, a baroque palace. The thirty variations are flanked by the Aria and its da capo, like a long façade with pavilions at each end. The central axis is marked by Variation 16, a French (!) overture. In order increase the specific gravity of the whole by injecting some solid German counterpoint into his fabric, Bach made all the variations which are multiples of three canonic, with two upper voices in strict imitation and a free bass. Variation 3 is a canon at the unison, Variation 6 a canon at the second, and so on, the interval of imitation increasing by steps until, at Variation 27 (3x3x3), a canon at the ninth (3x3), the accompanying bass drops away. The canon in Variation 15 marks the halfway point by inverting the imitating voice. The aria and each variation is a microcosm of the whole, having 32 measures in two sections of sixteen bars. The remaining variations are a catalogue of dance movements, a fughetta, trio sonatas, and gorgeous cantilenas. One of these, the sombre-hued Variation 25, Landowska called “the black pearl of the set”.

This plan is certainly masterly. But one could write a set of variations on the same plan and still have it come out as rubbish. Or one can play the Goldberg Variations, plan and all, and still play them badly. The plan gets too much attention; it is as a menu to a great meal, or a map to journey—a mere starting-point. The music holds riches such feeble analysis can barely hint at. In fact, probably no composition has suffered so much at the hands of its interpreters. The “soft and somewhat lively character” of Kayserling’s variations tends to get lost in febrile technical show, especially in the cross-hand variations, which on an historical harpsichord can only be played with the lightest of registrations. A teacher of mine compared them to “Régence filigree”. At the time, I was too young to have any inkling of what he was talking about.

A Canadian pianist and his admirers turned the work into a thing of such hyper-tense, modernist rigidity that, hearing it, the poor Count’s sleep would have been eternal; and many present-day harpsichordists have substituted the gait of a drunken sailor for any sense of tempo. But the Goldberg Variations will survive all abuses, until such intelligent life as exists on our much-abused planet is finally extinguished.

Glen Wilson

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