Ideas about the Goldberg Variations BWV 988

Arguably the most important composition for the harpsichord (as fundamental  to the art of the harpsichord as Frescobaldi’s seminal Libro Primo of 1615), the so-called Goldberg Variations are one of a very special handful of large scale compositions from the last decade of Bach’s life. This is the decade in which he revised the St Matthew Passion, assembled the B Minor Mass, composed the Art of Fugue, and Canonic Variations on von Himmel Hoch. It is his last and most sophisticated work for the harpsichord, and it seems appropriate that a performer think as deeply as possible about it in order to arrive at a good interpretation. More than that, since Bach’s published works have a pedagogical dimension, how can anyone resist the opportunity to learn as much as possible from it?

As I’ve become better acquainted with BWV 988 (I have to make an effort not to call it the Goldberg Variations, a moniker that has glued itself to the piece and to our minds, but which the musicologists now agree, I think, comes from a bogus story), it’s become harder to conclude what is the most important perspective to have on it. It is as much a lesson by demonstration in the art of composition as a tutor for a very sophisticated harpsichord technique. It is clearly inspired or triggered by the publication of Domenico Scarlatti’s 30 Essercizi in London a few years before, as it integrates the ancient art of counterpoint and polyphony with the new art of dazzling keyboard virtuosity. It also pays homage to Buxtehude and Bach’s other compositional ancestors. And from so many perspectives, it’s very unusual.

I can imagine Bach looking over Scarlatti’s Essercizi the first time, thinking to himself; how intriguing, these figurations, these hand-crossings, textures. Hmm. Lacks form and structure, though, and the themes are weak. Oh, there’s this change in the musical material halfway through the A section, that’s a cool idea I could do something with.

It poses questions and challenges for anyone who chooses to study it. It seems to me that’s who he wrote it for; any connoisseur willing and able to grapple with it and probe its depths. He hides clever little things in it for us to find and marvel at. Did he write it with the intention it be performed at one sitting? That didn’t seem to be a tradition then, so we can guess fairly safely that wasn’t its primary purpose. But of course it was masterfully enough composed, so that a performance could be engaging and fascinating, even for a piece that takes some 80 minutes to play through (with most or all repeats), remains in one tonality throughout, and adheres to the same harmonic progression 32 (64?) times.

It begins with a little riddle; entitled Aria with 30 Variations. The opening Aria seems much like a sarabande, but in using the term Aria he’s telling us it’s not a dance. What does this mean? It might mean not to take it too slowly, or it might mean not to emphasize the second beat as you would in a sarabande. As I play it, at least this week, I try to pay most attention to the bass line, since that is after all the theme of the variation set, not the soprano melodic line. So I treat the first beat as the strong one and I don’t enunciate the meter of a sarabande. But I reserve the right to change my mind. Bach had a habit of leaving little clues; one should pay attention and think about what they might mean. He might also mean in some way, things are not always what they seem. Because, of course what’s very unusual here is that the theme isn’t really overtly stated here. The theme is of course the bass line and its harmonic progression, but it’s obscured by the lovely soprano melody, and the bass line itself is never stated without elaboration.

As a performer, I get to imagine and consider aspects and possibilities which might make for a better, more interesting interpretation. I don’t have to be authentic, whatever that might mean, or “right” but I do feel it’s important to play it in an esthetic consistent with the time in which it was written. So I have to think about the language in which it was written, which is the language of gesture and what they call rhetoric. I can’t claim to be well-read in this, but as I understand this means several key things.

First, the music is intended to convey or elicit emotions. The performer has to find a feeling in each variation that is persuasive, and also works in terms of the piece as a whole and in connections or transitions from one variation to the next. I think the search for those feelings, or affects, are as much of a challenge that he poses for the performer as mastering the notes themselves. While many of the variations are extraordinary physical/mechanical challenges, finding the most persuasive feeling is just as, or more, important. And fascinating, too, as I don’t think the music is that prescriptive; there seem to be often not just room for nuances but very plausible significantly different choices. So it seems, at least in part, an exercise in finding the affect possibilities that the music permits, or better, suggests.

Next, the language of this music, really all baroque music and each subtype in its own way, is an integration of bodily gestures (like bowing, or stepping, or leaping) and the elements of speech (consonants, vowels, punctuation, parentheses, paragraphs). These all unfold within the all-important envelope of meter and rhythm.  So there is a co-existence of the irregular, because speech is irregular, and meter is subtly irregular, within the regular overall flow (the fundamental tempo or pulse) and structure. This is the essence of high baroque art. It really is important to remember that this music belongs to an age well before that of rhythmic evenness, well before the metronome and its exact equality of beats and subdivisions within beats. This music requires a masterful grasp of how to enunciate meter and clearly project strong and weak beats, not to mention unequal subdivisions within those beats. Was that a particular challenge in BWV 988, or a baseline expectation that a player should bring to it? Because that is without doubt the language this piece is written in, so if you’re not grappling with these issues in performance you are perhaps missing the point. And grappling with them is very challenging.

It is really impressive, actually astounding, what an elaborate piece Bach creates from such a simple idea, the bass line of the first 8 bars. It’s a very simple stepwise descending line, and then a cadence. That’s its first sentence. Also within its first sentence is a soprano line that in the first bar, ascends one step.

Perhaps it’s clever, maybe just a coincidence, that Bach’s large scale structure is built on every third variation being a canon, starting with a canon at the unison and the ascending one step at a time, until it’s a canon at the ninth, in two parts. I think that’s deliberate, though. He’s demonstrating the relationship of the smallest element to the whole. I see that also in the bass line theme, which has two halves, and the two halves of the whole work as punctuated by variation 16, the French overture. But I won’t go into the numbers thing here, other people have written plenty about that.

Within its formal architecture, there is also an increasing progression of inventiveness and complexity, consistent with what you would expect of an rhetorical argument. In the last few variations, the innovativeness really goes bananas, and is really unlike anything else. The burbling figurations of variation 26, the sustained 32nd note trills in variation 28, the crazy barrages of chords and dazzling runs of variation 29, are all really unique and bring the work to an incredible concluding intensity, which require a cool-down of both the quodlibet and the aria again.

I have a hypothesis; in the first half of the piece it seems to me that each set of three variations which culminate in a canon lead up to the canon in dramatic intensity. That’s most clearly true in the first twelve variations, but it works consistently. In this view, variation 15 is bit of an enigma but that’s fine, Bach is happy with enigmas. Variation 9 is the exception, I think the high point is the Fughetta, Variation 10. Perhaps I’m wrong, but perhaps Bach the composer was teaching us that too much predictability is a bad thing. But in the second half, that doesn’t seem to work, at least for me. It’s more convincing, to me, that the canon that ends each threesome is more, I think, recessed, some kind of anticlimax or has a wistful aspect. There’s even a funeral song, in variation 25.  variation 27 is intriguing, and Bach calls attention to how unusual it is in a few ways; a canon at the ninth, now, that’s really weird. A drop of a seventh in the theme, that’s weird and important. And 27 is 3 times 3 times 3, which we know signifies importance. I wonder if you play it in some way as the voice of counterpoint from beyond the grave (because we already had the funeral song, remember), or even some kind of resurrection, it works? The bravura style finally wins out over the ancient learned art of counterpoint, and variation 29 is its triumphant exultation. This raises a wonderful question of how to play the quodlibet.

That’s a possible dramatic narrative, and it’s possible to make everything fit within that narrative in some way. You get to ask yourself whether it’s a struggle between the old and new, or whether it’s the rise of the new, with its youthful exuberance while the old gets tired, worn out, fades away. An interesting concept for the performer. I don’t know if it’s right, I care if it adds to the performance. But it is hard to imagine that in that decade Bach would compose a strange masterpiece that had less than a profound underlying meaning.

This piece is about many things, and contains a wealth of mysteries. It’s the first real set of etudes, but really for me they are etudes of rhetoric and feelings foremost, disguised as etudes of finger challenges and compositional prowess.



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