Thursday May 1, 2014
Jeffrey Kahane, keyboard

BACH Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
orchestration: solo keyboard

As we have seen in some of the other Baroque Conversations this season, variations provided an opportunity for a composer to show off great skill and virtuosity. It is a form still beloved by audiences because it is lively, inventive and usually grows in intensity and complexity throughout a work. Bach, in contrast to his contemporaries, did not favor the form, finding it rather tedious. There are a few notable exceptions to this, however, and arguably the most important of these are the Goldberg Variations.

The story surrounding the piece is almost as famous as the work itself, and it appeared in a very early biography of the composer. Bach, who died in 1750, was still mostly unknown to the general public, when, in 1802, musician and the founder of modern musicology Johann Nikolaus Forkel decided to undertake the writing of the Baroque master’s biography. The story of the Goldberg Variations, according to Forkel, begins with Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to Saxony. On his frequent travels through Leipzig, the Count brought Johann Gottleib Goldberg, a young composer and performer who worked for him, to Bach 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 on such nights when sleep eluded him. Bach took it upon himself to write a set of variations in the hopes that Goldberg would play them during the Count’s sleepless nights. Keyserlingk loved the works and reportedly called them his variations, rewarding Bach with a goblet full of money. The story has come into doubt since there is no dedication to either Keyserlingk or Goldberg on the title page, although Bach does refer to himself as the “composer for the Royal Court of Poland and the Electoral Court of Saxony,” a title Keyserlingk helped him acquire.

If the story is true, Keyserlingk’s commission for Bach was not intended to create a piece to lull the Count to sleep, but instead to cheer him on sleepless nights. Bach did not disappoint; the Goldberg Variations are anything but boring, and Bach once again demonstrated his ability to produce a new trick, creating 30 imaginative variations on an “aria.” One of the first clever touches was this: Bach did not, as is typical in a set of variations, vary the melody of the aria. He instead made novel variations on the bass line and supporting harmonies.

Bach’s approach to this set is systematic. Every third piece is a canon, which is a strict exercise in imitation. (Imitation refers to the repetition of a musical phrase—with slight variations—within a piece.) The final, and 30th, variation is called “Quodlibet,” or “What Pleases,” and it is based on German folk songs. In addition to using canons for every third variation, Bach also referred to other genres. Variations 4, 7 and 19, for example, are based on Baroque dances.

The Goldberg Variations are extraordinary and masterful, and a great deal of study and analysis has been dedicated to exploring why they are so successful. Not only does the work require skillful playing and considerable stamina, it is a piece that draws upon a wealth of traditions. It is as if Bach left us a musical catalogue or encyclopedia of the styles and techniques of the period, and this unique understanding is evident in each variation.

An edition of the Goldberg Variations was published in Bach’s lifetime, an important detail when one realizes that most of Bach’s works remained unpublished until almost a century after his death. Bach’s friend Balthasar Schmid published an engraved copy of the Variations in 1741. It contains no dedication to either Keyserlingk or Goldberg (providing evidence that Forkel’s story may be just a legend). Although Schmid simply called it a “Keyboard Exercise,” he must have realized its importance. The GoldbergVariations’ surge in popularity in the 20th century (thanks largely to Glenn Gould’s recordings) has continued on into the 21st, with new arrangements and transcriptions emerging every couple of years. Now in its third century of existence, the GoldbergVariations prove again and again that they are still relevant, still fascinating and still thrilling to audiences.

— Christine Lee Gengaro, PhD