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Goldberg Variations – A guided tour from pianist András Schiff

Editor’s Note: András Schiff performs the Goldberg Variations at Hill Auditorium on October 25, 2013. Below is his guided tour of the work.

Pianist Andras Schiff sits at piano to perform the Goldberg Variations.

“Se non è vero, è ben trovato.” (If it isn’t true, it’s well invented.) Johann Nikolaus Forkel, in his 1802 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach described the history of the Goldberg Variations with the following anecdote: “Count Keyserlingk, formerly Russian ambassador to Saxony, often visited Leipzig. Among his servants there was a talented young man, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – a harpsichordist (Cembalist) who was a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and later of Johann Sebastian Bach himself. The count had been suffering from insomnia and ill-health and Goldberg, who also lived there, had to stay in the room next door to soothe his master’s suffering with music. Once the count asked Bach to compose some keyboard pieces for Goldberg, pieces of mellowness and gaiety that would enliven his sleepless nights. Bach decided to write a set of variations, a form that prior to this, hadn’t interested him much. Nevertheless, in his masterly hands, an exemplary work of art had been born. The count was so delighted with it, he called them ‘my variations’. He would often say: ‘My dear Goldberg, play me one of my variations.’ Bach had probably never been so generously rewarded for his music. The count gave him a golden goblet with a hundred Louis d’Or!”

Se non è vero, è ben trovato.

Like all legends, this one also suffers from dubious authenticity. It is difficult to comprehend why this work, published in 1741 by Balthasar Schmid in Nürnberg, does not bear any dedication to Count Keyserlingk or Goldberg. This excludes the possibility of a commission. It is also hardly believable that Goldberg (born in 1727) would have been sufficiently developed as a musician (at the ripe old age of 14!) to handle the extraordinary musical, technical and intellectual difficulties of this composition.

However, like all legends this one also contains some elements of truth. Bach’s works in variation form are few and far between. The rare examples are the Aria variata alla maniera italiana BWV 989 (1709), the Passacaglia in C minor for organ BWV 582 (1716/17), and the Chaconne of the D minor Partita for solo violin BWV 1004 (1720). The dates show that two decades separate the Chaconne from the Goldberg Variations. He subsequently returned to this neglected genre in 1746/47 with his canonic variations on a Christmas song for organ “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her” BWV 769.

Bach was a composer with encyclopaedic ambitions. In all the genres of sacred and secular music that he worked with, he reached heights that even to equal – let alone surpass – would be unimaginable. Had the circumstances of his life been different, and had he been court composer in Dresden, then no doubt that Johann Sebastian Bach would have become the greatest opera composer, too. In 1731 our encyclopaedist embarked on a huge project: Clavier-Übung (Clavier exercise), a collection of pieces of various styles written for different keyboard instruments. The first part (1731) contains six partitas. It represents the highest art of Baroque dance suites. The second part (1735) juxtaposes the Italian Concerto with the French Overture (not bad for a composer who had never been outside Germany). The third part is a collection of organ pieces: the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, the Four Duets, and several chorale preludes. In the fourth and last part, Bach wanted to finish with a crowning achievement, and thus the variations provided him with a real challenge. He probably felt a certain prejudice against this form. Many of his illustrious contemporaries had produced brilliant examples that had received much applause. Bach was never interested in cheap success and his goal was to try to elevate the usually extroverted variations onto a hitherto unknown artistic and spiritual level.

The title page announces: “Clavier-Übung containing an aria with different variations for harpsichord with two manuals”. This is one of the three instances where Bach specifically calls for such an instrument (the others being the Italian Concerto and the French Overture). The theme is a beautiful aria written by Bach in 1725 for his wife in the famous Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. It is symmetrically devised in two halves of sixteen bars each. Present day listeners must be careful not to be led astray by the beguiling quality of its melody, they should first concentrate on the bass line. Standing in front of a cathedral, we are overwhelmed by its size and grandeur. Our eyes are constantly diverted towards the splendour of the towers and the cupola at the top, while we tend to neglect the foundations on which the whole building rests.

This ground bass is like that of a passacaglia or a chaconne, it is the alpha and omega of the construction. There are thirty variations, after which the Aria returns in its initial shape, thus uniting the beginning with the end. Bach clearly asks the performer to repeat each section. Not doing so would destroy the perfect symmetry and its proportions. Great music is never too long. It is certain listeners’ patience that is too short.

“Aller guten Dinge sind drei” – All good things are three, thus the thirty variations are divided into ten groups of three. Each group contains a brilliant virtuoso toccata-like piece, a gentle and elegant character piece and a strictly polyphonic canon. The canons are presented in a sequence of increasing intervals, starting with the canon in unison up until the canon in ninths. In place of the canon in tenths we have a quodlibet (what pleases) which combines fragments of two folk songs with the ground bass. The tonality remains G major for the most part, with shadows of tonic minor in three variations (nos. 15, 21 & 25).

Let us go on a journey together, and let me be your guide. A guide should not talk too much, but it’s essential that she or he has already been on this trip many times, and thus can draw the passengers’ attention to the details that are relevant.

Listen to András Schiff’s recording of the Goldberg Variations on this recording and read his complete notes.