Learning the “Goldberg” Variations
There’s a practical/tactical aspect of learning this work; not to be ignored since it’s 80 minutes plus or minus of music, depending on how many repeats you observe. And very importantly there’s an artistic dimension as well that has to be approached strategically and with clear intention.
I’ll start with the practical side. Everyone will come to this with their own facility of playing and learning, so I’m just going to go from my own experience. First of all, learn it once and then come back to it a few years later. Now, there’s a first phase to it which involves practicing the variations that come more readily, for most people that’s going to include most of the first half, probably with few if any of the hand-crossing variations, and some of the second half, again without the hand-crossing pieces and with or without the overture. The purpose is to realistically segment the work, getting some variations fairly comfortable in the fingers and mind, while reserving enough time for more deliberate work on the challenging pieces, which take most people a lot of time to learn. I’ve found a good strategy is to spend perhaps half your practice time improving and honing what’s been learned, and half your time on learning additional variations, and I’d suggest no more than three at a time. There’s generally an ascending degree of difficulty, so starting with the hand-crossing pieces in the first half makes good sense. My experience was that it takes about a week for a set of three very difficult variations to progress from the very slow learning stage to relatively comfortable and ready to move to the ‘improving/honing’ stage. So that means it will take about 4 to 5 weeks of pretty intensive work to get everything into the honing stage. I won’t venture an opinion on how long the work should be honed before it’s ready to perform. That’s a personal issue but really I would encourage a long time.
It’s important to spend extra time and attention on the difficult ones at the end, 26 through 29. It’s typical to save these for last, and because of the fatigue factor in performance they need to become second nature, very well learned and reliable.
Variation 20 requires special attention and so does 23.
A friend advised me to spend time practicing transitions; endings and beginnings of sequential variations. Good advice, to really ingrain how to start each variation with the right tempo and character, since the change of tempo and character from one to the other is sometimes very difficult. Most people put more creative thought into the beginning of a piece; the ending is just as important and a critical interpretive opportunity.
You have to be very good at feeling the flow of the whole work from beginning to end, yet not suffer from energy deficit near the end. So I recommend, as time goes on, to practice them in reverse order one day, and in proper order the next. Also, mix it up and jump around. I nearly always practice the entire work every day, believing it’s a bad idea to neglect any variation no matter how apparently easy it might seem.
A few thoughts about the artistic or interpretive element; first of all understand what this work is about. It’s a fusion of the ‘old’ style of the baroque, with its canons and intricate counterpoint, and the incredible, really amazing, elaboration above an elegant bass line, with the new style, inspired certainly by Domenico Scarlatti whose 30 Essercizi were published in London just 2 years before, of dazzling keyboard virtuosity. Two principles of creating astonishment are joined, the intellectual and the virtuosic. So Bach must have sought to amaze and surprise, and it’s in this vein that the player should be thinking. And the way one amazes and surprises on the harpsichord is through, not speed necessarily, but texture and character. I think it’s rewarding to see each variation as a study in texture and character; in practice this means exploring the many interpretive possibilities and choices in each variation, finding convincing and interesting possibilities. Then you can make some well-informed choices about progression and juxtaposition, and find details that can surprise and amaze the listener, whether those are small details hidden within a variation or larger interpretive decisions.
A piece that takes this much practice time and repetition carries with it the risk of becoming boring through a kind of sameness; sameness that can result from too much repetition. Practice that involves dramatically different choices and character is a way of maintaining a kind of freshness, and also of understanding and internalizing the music much more deeply that you ordinarily would.
Another strategy I’ve found helpful is to play the Aria’s bass line alone at first; then just the left hand parts before adding the soprano melody. Since this bass line is the underlying, unifying principle of the work it’s worth getting to know it well on its own and be able to always hear it, and know when to draw attention to it over the course of the whole piece.
We’re very fortunate that there are excellent and very interesting performances on recordings now, and there are several that are very instructive and thought-provoking. Both of Pierre Hantai’s, the original on opus 11/Naïve, and then the more developed, detail intensive one on Mirare; Richard Egarr, and Celine Frisch. All are worth listening closely to, and not trying to copy, but to understand a sampling of the choices that can be made, and the importance of so many very small details.