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Repertoire Spotlight: The Goldberg Variations

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

A feature of this blog moving forward will be to highlight masterworks which the average music student might not frequent in their general historical studies, but nevertheless represent the pillars upon which Western Art Music are erected.

As it is my intention to broaden the student’s perspective to all genres within Western Art Music, as a springboard for this venture we start off with the Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach - my favourite keyboard work. 

I chose this piece to start because it is literally Bach’s greatest keyboard gospel. At a time when the pandemic crisis and civil protest come to fore, each of us needs to reflect on our humanity and the esteem with which we should aspire to hold our brothers and or sisters. As such, we start with a piece steeped in sacred symbolism.

The set of variations (aria with 30 variations) was composed in 1741 by J.S. Bach for his student Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. An accomplished harpsichordist, Goldberg was court composer to the Russian ambassador at the court of Saxony in Leipzig, Count Keyserling.  

The Count was a noted insomniac, meaning that he had great difficulty sleeping, and as such would often call upon his court composer in the wee hours of the morning to perform musical works that would help him pass the time. Goldberg asked his teacher to compose a new work which would keep the Count engrossed, and as such, it is from these inconspicuous beginnings that came into being the Mount Everest of keyboard variations.  

And so let's have a closer look….

The theme upon which the variations are cast is simple enough; an elegant, quaint Sarabande, titled Aria, in binary form. Its sanguine melody sings out over top of a harmonic progression in the bass and unfolding contrapuntal textures, which serve as the crux for the variation set.

This technique is called ground bass and unlike many theme and variation sets from the later classical era, the Goldberg variations are bound together by this constancy of harmony, rather than a melody which is then subject to many elaborations.

As with the Mathias and Johannes Passions, the Goldberg variations are set in 2 halves - the dueling opposites. While the first half is by no means easy, the second half is emotionally, athletically and mentally much more taxing.   

The variations themselves are grouped in trinities, with every third variation being a Canon. Bach, ever the master of counterpoint, features his cannons in an intervallic evolution increasing by step from Canon to Canon as the variations proceed. Thus the first Canon has a point of imitation at the unison, whilst the second canon has it at the second and so on. All the way up through variation 27 which is a cannon at the ninth…the proverbial blessed ascension, or stairway to heaven!

The latter half commences with a resolute French Ouverture and features several dazzling variations set in toccata style, which feature much crossing of hand and virtuosity on behalf of the performer. 

The epic Variation 25 is one Bach’s most deeply introspective of the set: full of chromaticism and depth of emotion. This particular variation, with its anguished overtones was actually used by Glenn Gould in his soundtrack to the movie Slaughterhouse Five, depicting a family’s desolation at viewing the destruction of the allied bombing of Dresden during World War II.

After some 45 minutes of technical bedazzlement, covering just about every keyboard structure genre known to the Baroque, and delivering one of the greatest testaments to contrapuntal mastery, Bach completes the variation set with a musical circle-of-life gesture, restating the Aria which commenced the set at its closing. A final testament to the Alpha, the Omega, and the living One!

The Goldbergs take a patient and ever probing mind to discern their deepest messages. There’s a wonderful story of Rudolph Serkin, the great American pianist and teacher, performing a recital in New York in which he asked the audience for an encore suggestion. Someone in the audience called out the Goldberg variations; and he promptly did. It was too much for the audience, however, and by the end of it there were only two people left, still listening with rapt attention. The first was arguably the greatest of all conductors of the last hundred years, Arturo Toscanini, and the other was a certain gentleman named Albert Einstein!

In my blog post on Glenn Gould (see here) I already talked about the enormous contributions that this man made to this work. Other recordings I would highly suggest are Simone Dinnerstein, Roselyn Turek and Murray Perahia.

The accompanying recordings to this blog are those of my student, Antian Jiang. The Goldbergs were Antian’s special project this year. She is the youngest recipient of the LRCM in the history of RCM exams which she earned at age 10 with distinction. She has participated in the Morningside Music Bridge and has coached with many master pianists, including the Goldberg with Simone Dinnerstein. Antian will make an art film of the complete Goldberg in late June 2020 - a link to which will appear at the end of this blog. 

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