Piano Recital
Johann Sebastian Bach 1685-1750
Johann Sebastian Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Johann Sebastian Bach’s so-called Goldberg Variations is among those great works that history has encrusted with myth, legend and misinformation. We all grew up learning that Bach composed this massive set of keyboard variations on commission from the insomniac Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk [spelling varies] to be performed for him as bedtime music by his talented harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg; that Bach was paid a small fortune by the grateful count (a golden goblet filled with a hundred Louis d’Or); and that the great work was written under duress since the composer disliked composing sets of variations. Colorful, but probably false.

The “Aria mit verschiedenen VerŠnderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen” (Aria with different Variations for the Harpsichord with 2 Manuals) forms Volume IV, the final volume of the Clavier ▄bung (keyboard exercises). Together, the Clavier ▄bung series, published between 1731 and 1741, are a complete survey of the art of keyboard playing of the period. The volumes include, in addition to the Variations: Volume I, Six Partitas; Volume II, the Italian Concerto and the French Overture; Volume III, a prelude and fugue plus a series of chorale preludes for organ. Each of the four volumes has an architectonic design; the individual works and their movements are carefully laid out according to key, structure and stylistic features consistent with the composer’s other comprehensive works, The Well-Tempered Clavier, The Art of the Fugue, The Musical Offering and the Mass in B minor.

The Aria, (ex 1) on which the variations are based, first appears in the hand of Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, under the title “Sarabande,” but the origin of the 32-bar figured bass is still not clear. According to Bach scholar Christoff Wolff, the first eight measures of the theme are identical with the theme of Handel’s Chaconne avec 62 variations, HWV 442 of 1703-6, which was printed in Amsterdam in 1732 by a publisher who had close connections with Bach. The simple theme triggered in Bach the kind of reaction described in his obituary: “He needed only to have heard any theme to be aware – it seemed in the same instant – of almost every intricacy that artistry could produce in the treatment of it.” *

Framed by the aria at the beginning and end of the piece, Example 1 the variations can be divided into ten groups of three. The first two in each group are figurative variations of ever-increasing difficulty; and the third is a strict canon. In his comprehensive way, Bach also designed the first two variations in each three-part group to feature the two manuals of the harpsichord, both separately and together. The first two variations in each group are not only free, but also incorporate various styles and Example 2 affects, Example 3 including dances, Example 4 a French overture, Example 5 a fugue, and elaborate and complex counterpoint. Example 6

The ten canons begin at the unison and progress in stepwise intervals through a canon at the ninth. The canons also become increasingly complex, beginning where the second voice follows the first exactly, Example 7 but also including canons in which the second voice is inverted or in retrograde and are not always easy to discern. The final canon is a quodlibet (pastiche), combining the Aria with at least two popular tunes that fit its harmonic structure. Example 8 In English, the two songs are titled: “Cabbage and beets have driven me away” and the less quirky “I have been away from you so long.” Suggestions of other ditties are also present, but no one seems to have identified them by name.

Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818), describes the musical tradition of creating quodlibets in the Bach family:
“For now they sang popular songs, the contents of which were partly comic and partly naughty, all together and impromptu, so that the several extemporized parts made a kind of harmony together, the words, however, in every part being different. They called this kind of extemporaneous harmony a quodlibet, and not only could they laugh heartily at it themselves, but they also excited an equally hearty and irresistible laughter in everybody that heard them.”
We are, of course, faced with the question of the true etiology of the Goldberg Variations and, indeed, of the Clavier ▄bung volumes in general. Had Bach composed the Variations for the insomniac Count Keyserlingk, there would certainly have been a flowery dedication page in the published version. Add to that the fact that Gottlieb Goldberg, whose name has been immortalized by its association with this masterpiece, was only 14 years old in 1741 when the Variations were published. In the absence of any other solid evidence, and given the composer’s characteristic systematic thoroughness, we must conclude that Bach composed this monumental work at the inspiration of his own didactic or musical-mathematical muse.

As with many other Bach works, information on his performance practices for the Variations is sparse. There are serious questions of tempi and of repeats – modern recorded performances range from less than 40 to over 90 minutes – with and without repeats. And then there is the question of what keyboard instrument Bach had in mind. There is a running argument as to whether a harpsichord or piano is the more appropriate instrument under modern performance conditions. Although the work was certainly conceived for a two-manual harpsichord, there are currently over 70 recordings on each instrument. Glenn Gould’s groundbreaking 1955 piano recording set a standard that has greatly influenced subsequent performance technique on either instrument. But playing the Variations on the piano raises some difficult technical problems because in those variations where Bach specifies two manuals, the hands must cross awkwardly or fudge the passage in order to play the music on a single keyboard.
Ľ The only known obituary of J. S. Bach appeared in 1754, four years after his death, in the periodical Muscalische Bibliotek and was probably written by his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel and J. F. Agricola.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017