Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

Thursday December 9, 2010

Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

orchestration: solo keyboard

Much study and analysis has been dedicated to JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations, for they are the towering work of a master. Not only do they require skillful playing and considerable stamina, they draw upon a wealth of traditions. The set is an encyclopedia of the styles and techniques of the period. Bach had absorbed and mastered all of the genres and styles of his time, and his unique understanding is evident in variation after variation. The Goldberg Variations are nothing short of a musical expedition—each variation is an exquisite snapshot along the way, and the whole journey is a splendid one.

Few of Bach’s compositions were published in his lifetime, but the Goldberg Variations are a very important exception, which Bach’s friend Balthasar Schmid published in 1741 in an engraved copy. The story surrounding the work is almost as famous as the music itself. The tale of the genesis of the Goldberg Variations first appeared in a biography of Bach written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel in 1802. (The biography itself is notable because Bach was still something of an unknown to the general public in the early 19th century. It wasn’t until Bach’s grand revival by Mendelssohn in 1829 that he became popular.) The story, which may or may not be true, begins with Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, who was the Russian ambassador to Saxony. On his frequent travels through artistLeipzig, he brought Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a young composer and performer who worked for him, to JS Bach (and Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedmann) for music lessons. On one of these visits, Keyserlingk mentioned his frequent insomnia and said he’d like to have some keyboard works for Goldberg to play for him on such nights when sleep seemed impossible. Bach took it upon himself to write a set of variations for Keyserlingk in the hopes that Goldberg would in fact play them during the Count’s sleepless nights. The Count loved the works and reportedly referred to them as “his” variations, rewarding Bach with a goblet full of money. The story has been called into question since there is no dedication to either Keyserlingk or Goldberg on the title page, although Bach does call himself the “composer for the Royal Court of Poland and the Electoral Court of Saxony,” a title Keyserlingk helped him acquire.

The Goldberg Variations became a benchmark for keyboard players after their composition and remain so even today because of their difficulty and length. One performer in the 20th century, however, brought them their most widespread fame. Glenn Gould (1932–1982) became associated with the Goldberg Variations in the 1950s, playing the entire cycle on piano on his first recording for Columbia Masterworks in 1955. The success of the album meant that Gould would be associated with the Variations for the rest of his life, and indeed, he often played them in public appearances. They became something of a signature for him, and he recorded the Variations again—with a slightly different interpretation—a year before his death. Gould’s wasn’t the only version explored in the 20th century, however; in fact, many composers and arrangers have arranged the set for different ensembles and in varied styles. In the 1930s, Josef Koffler transcribed them for string orchestra. In the early 1970s (near the era of “Switched on Bach”) Joel Spiegelman played them on a synthesizer. There has also been an arrangement for two guitars, a version for solo guitar, a transcription for harp and two different string trio versions.

The use of the theme and variations form was widespread in the Baroque period. The composer begins with a tune, usually very simple, and then alters something fundamental about it — tempo, mode (major vs. minor) or complexity — in each successive variation. Such a form allowed composers to show off their skill in turning a simple theme into something grand and spectacular. Composers often added layers with successive variations, making each one more complex than the last. The final variations are usually the most difficult to play, and are often quite breathtaking. Despite the popularity of the form, Bach did not write many sets of variations. He found the process rather tedious, in fact, but his inventive Variations are certainly not tedious for the listener. Bach states the aria, as it is called, at the beginning, but the melody is not the subject he varies; rather it is the chord progression and bassline that repeat throughout. The aria is made up of two 16-measure sections, each repeated. Bach’s approach to varying the theme is systematic. Every third piece is a canon, also known as a “round,” which is a strict exercise in imitation and is familiar to anyone who has ever sung “Row, Row, Row your Boat”! In each successive canon, the imitation moves further and further away from the subject. The final variation, the 30th, is called “Quodlibet,” or “What Pleases,” and it is based on German folk songs. In addition to using the canons for every third variation, Bach also referred to other genres. Variations 4, 7 and 19, for example, are based on Baroque dances. The movements that follow the canons also have stylistic features in common, further unifying the work as a whole.

Baroque compositional rules are renowned for their staggering complexity, yet this very intricacy reveals Bach’s undeniable genius. Rules were not a hindrance to Bach; rather, he could employ these elaborate rules to create works that sound simple and seamless. As we saw when considering his canons, Bach even treated the rules as a game! His music is layer upon layer of byzantine complexity, yet audiences are never lost when they hear a Bach piece. The Variations’ main theme is beautifully simple, yet even as he develops it in every possible harmonic, melodic and rhythmic way, audiences still perceive clarity and direction. It is as though, with the Goldberg Variations, Bach spun a matted stack of straw into pure gold.

– Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD