The Goldberg Variations BWV 988

October 29, 2017: Peter Serkin, piano

A wonderful story, recounted by Bach’s early biographer J. N. Forkel, revealed that the Goldberg Variations were the result of a request by former Russian ambassador and insomniac Count Keyserlingk for some clavier pieces that his young house harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, could play for him during sleepless nights. A great patron of the arts, the count lived in Dresden but often visited Leipzig, where in 1737 he had introduced the ten-year-old Goldberg to Bach, recommending him as a harpsichord student.

Goldberg indeed took lessons from Bach, but also from his oldest son Wilhelm Friedemann, a great keyboard virtuoso who was working in Dresden. It may be, as some scholars claim, that the elder Bach wrote the monumental work for his son rather than for Goldberg, but Forkel’s account cannot be dismissed because some information for his biography came directly from Wilhelm Friedemann and from Bach’s second oldest son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. In any case, Goldberg, too, became an outstanding virtuoso, and seems to have played the Variations frequently. Bach visited Count Keyserlingk in Dresden in November 1741, having published the Variations that fall, and it is entirely likely that he gave him a presentation copy. The count referred to them as “my” variations, but the work cannot have been an official commission or Bach would have included a formal dedication. For posterity the Aria with 30 Variations will always be known as the Goldberg Variations.

In the larger scheme of things, Bach, a master organizer, published the work as part of the series he unassumingly titled Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercise), which he issued in installments beginning in 1731. This “exercise” represents the pinnacle of Bach’s art and thus an incomparable peak in the whole of music. His six keyboard Partitas make up Part I, followed by the Italian Concerto and the French Overture as Part II, the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major and various organ chorales as Part III, and, finally, the Goldberg Variations. He may even have included the Art of Fugue as Book V had he lived to see it published.

In choosing to compose a large set of variations, Bach stood firmly in the tradition of Corelli, Handel, and Rameau, though he himself had not written a keyboard set since his youth. Aria was also a traditional title for the first movement of such a set—Bach’s Aria is a thirty-two measure theme that also appears in Anna Magdalena Bach’s Clavier-Büchlein of 1725. For the first eight bars the harmony and bass line (the basis for most Baroque variation sets rather than the theme itself) are the same as for Handel’s Chaconne avec 62 variations, which Bach surely knew. Handel’s treatment of the last variation as a simple canon (precise imitation of one line by another) must have sparked Bach’s imagination even before the Goldberg Variations, because he used the underlying progression as the basis for several canons. Versions of these later appeared in his Fourteen Canons (BWV 1087), which he eventually copied into his own print of Part IV of the Clavier-Übung, explicitly connecting these two collections. He probably also knew a set of sarabande variations attributed to the “Eisenach” Bach (1642–1703)—or to J. S. Bach’s older brother—which employ the same progression for the first four measures.

Forerunners aside, Bach employed a much longer theme than his predecessors had, giving himself a much fuller range to explore his incomparable canonic and variation techniques. The whole set is carefully organized so that every third variation includes a canon, systematically increasing the pitch interval at which the second line begins its imitation, starting with a canon at the unison for Variation 3 and continuing through the interval of a ninth in Variation 27. (The canons in Nos. 12 and 15 proceed in contrary motion.) In addition Bach sets up a threefold pattern of variation types (beginning with the third variation) of canon, free counterpoint, and duet-style. Before No. 3 he includes two free variations and follows No. 27 with three more free variations before he recalls the Aria.

Despite Bach’s organizational and canonic rigors, there is nothing dry and pedantic about the Goldberg variations, which certainly must have kept Count Keyserlingk highly engaged rather than lulled to sleep. Bach juxtaposes variations of contrasting meter, specific rhythmic figuration, or texture, and he makes dramatic or witty variations with equal ingenuity. One of the most striking aspects of his elegant wit appears in the variations with hand-crossings, which appear already in the first variation. Here they require a certain athleticism, since Bach designates this variation to be played on just one of the harpsichord’s two manuals (keyboards). (Because Bach intended the Goldberg Variations for a two-manual harpsichord, transferring them to piano necessitates decisions about how best to distribute the two-manual variations, which pianists solve in many different ways.) Variations 5, 14, 20, and 28 also call for similar leaping hand-crossings rather than the type whose hand-crossings are the result of lines of counterpoint crossing each other—Nos. 8, 11, 17, 23, and 26. Both types require great virtuosity, the latter following in a long line of keyboard pieces known as bicinia or pièces croisées.

Bach also includes dance types, such as a gigue for Variation 7 (labeled al tempo di Giga in his manuscript) or, though not so-designated, a highly ornamented sarabande for the slower Variation 13 with its emphasis on second beats. He labels Variation 10 a Fughetta, which though not a strict fugue contains an entrance of the fugue subject in every fourth bar. Variation 24 seems to have roots in the instrumental pastorale, similar to the siciliana in its lilting compound meter and deceptively simple or “rural” atmosphere. Many of the variations focus on a certain keyboard technique or challenge in the manner of the études of much later generations. Variation 8 suggests a study in arpeggios and contrary motion, Variation 23 a variety of virtuosic figures including parallel thirds, and 28, sustained measured trills, often in inner voices.

Bach makes a striking gesture with French overture–style dotted rhythms as a kind of grand opening statement for the second half of the set. This variation also serves to bring back the prevailing major mode after No. 15, the first of only three variations in minor, whose canonic unfolding introduces two-note “sighs,” some daring chromaticism, and a curious ending that drifts upward. The last minor-mode variation, the soulful, chromatic No. 25, achieves the greatest weight and depth of the free variations, part of Bach’s scheme of increasing drama as well as technical brilliance as the set progresses.

Most of the variations exhibit a two- or three-voice texture, though Bach intersperses four-voice variations at judicious intervals. Of these, two make specific reference to older polyphonic styles: Variation 22, marked Alla breve, employs Renaissance-style counterpoint as in a motet, and Variation 30 shows Bach having some fun in a quodlibet. Literally “as you like it,” the term had been used since the mid-fourteenth century to designate a humorous piece that combined two or more independent melodies, often folk tunes, in contrapuntal style. The Bach family reportedly improvised such pieces at family gatherings.

Scholars have found at least six snippets in Variation 30 that appear to be folk quotations, of which the most obvious are phrases from “Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west” (I’ve been away from you so long) and “Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben” (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away). Bach’s witty combination of these phrases seems to refer to this “hodge-podge” (another meaning of Kraut und Rüben) having driven the main theme away, necessitating the recall of the Aria. Without any knowledge of quotations or elegant witticisms, however, Variation 30’s old-fashioned demeanor has the musical effect of halting the intensifying brilliance built up by the preceding variations, preparing for the Aria’s return to bring the work full circle.

It is unlikely that Bach, his sons, or Goldberg played the set of variations straight through at a single performance. Nevertheless, its organization, carefully considered contrasts, cohesion, and technical challenges have made performances of the entire Goldberg Variations the lofty goal of many keyboard virtuosos—to the delight of the listening public.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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