The Composition

The piece of music today known as the Goldberg Variations was written by the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach and first published in 1742. The title of that first folio was:

consisting of
an Aria
with Diverse Variations

for the Harpsichord
with Two Manuals
Composed for Music Lovers,
to Refresh their Spirits, by
Johann Sebastian Bach:
Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Composer,
Capellmeister, and Director Chori Musici in Leipzig.

For many years it was known simply as "An Aria with Variations".

The Variations consists of an opening aria with a single bass theme and thirty accompanying variations; it finishes with the aria repeated again. The original title Clavierübung ("keyboard practice") is a modest one that belies the complexity of the composition. The title should not be taken to imply that this was written for beginners; on the contrary, it signifies that Bach wanted in his composition to survey all the styles and techniques of keyboard playing then in vogue. Indeed, it is this breadth of scope that makes the work so challenging to play. The Variations is the longest of all clavier works published during the Baroque period and has become exceptionally popular in modern times.

The composition of the Variations is much admired as a fine example of musical symmetry, structure, and architecture.

The aria which begins and ends the composition is a sarabande, a binary dance movement which consists of two parts of equal length, sixteen bars each. The Variations itself consists of thirty-two pieces turning on two parts of equal length - the aria plus fifteen variations each. The aria first appeared in a collection Bach made in 1725 for his wife Anna Magdalena; scholars speculate that it is probably not written by him, but was chosen for these variations because of the potential implicit in its harmonic structure.

The variations are worked upon the bass line of the aria and its associated chords, and share the symmetrical structure that is the prevailing feature of the entire composition. Nine of the variations are canons (contrapuntal pieces where an extended melody accompanies itself, offset by time) that are placed at a regular distance of every three pieces: the first canon (No. 3) in unison, the final one (No. 27) in ninth. The variations are also grouped in threes, and consist of a free variation, a variation in duet, and a canon, with ten groups in all. No. 30, the last variation before the ending, is not a canon as might be expected, but a quodlibet (a contrapuntal piece which is built on several melodies). In this case, No. 30 uses two folk tunes which were considered at the time to be rather bawdy: "I long have been away from you, Come here, come here, come here" and "Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, Had my mother cooked meat, I'd have chosen to stay". Other variations are fughetta, a French overture (No. 16, the beginning of the second half), trio sonata, and other dance pieces.

The sheer breadth and mastery of styles impresses. Equally important is the virtuosity of technique - most particularly approaching the climactic ending, where the instrumentalist must deal with swift flamboyant ornamentations such as hand-crossing and trills, until finally the second calming aria is reached.

Scholarly Debates

The Variations is generally thought to be Bach's fourth in a series of publications. The first appeared in 1731 and consisted of six partitas previously published separately and now gathered together as "Opus I", to be followed in 1735 by the "Italian Concerto" and "French Overture", and then the "German Organ Mass" in 1739. Though the Variations is taken to be the fourth piece, it did not have IV anywhere on the folio - unlike the previous three, which were all clearly numbered. The sequencing, too, was unusual, following the previous publication by only two years instead of four, as had been the case before. As you might expect, Bach scholars get quite excited debating why this one was different - perhaps the new publisher didn't want people asking for works I through III, which he hadn't produced himself? Or maybe Bach wanted to make a clean break between this work and the others, since this one did not follow a thematic he had been working on, where I was written for a single-manual instrument; II for a two-manual instrument and consisting of two pieces in two national styles; and III for three manuals and structured around the number three; while the Variations cannot reasonably be said to be about the number four in any clear or even obscure way. But we'll leave these arcane debates to the experts, and explore a bit further the legends of how this gorgeous composition came to be written.

The story goes that the Variations was written in response to a request by the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, Count Kaiserling. Kaiserling, sickly and troubled by insomnia, asked Bach to write some restful keyboard pieces which his musician-in-service, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, might perform from the next room as a soporific when the count could not sleep. Bach was not fond of variations because of their fundamental sameness, but apparently he thought they would be restful for the count. In addition, he was determined to make his variations as much models of art as his other works. It appears the count was thrilled with the composition, which he referred to always as his variations.

Or so says Johann Nikolaus Forkel, the source of this story, which was in the first biography of Bach, published by Forkel in 1802, 52 years after Bach's death. According to Forkel, the count "was never weary of hearing them; and for a long time, whenever he could not sleep at night, he used to say: 'Dear Goldberg, do play for me one of my variations.'" Forkel claimes that Kaiserling presented Bach with a gold goblet filled with 100 louis d'or, almost equivalent to Bach's annual salary, to show his appreciation for the work.

The story has never been proven or disproven, but most Bach scholars are skeptical of it for a number of reasons, and not only because there is no contemporary documentary evidence to corroborate the story. The original publication had no dedication on it, contrary to the custom of the day and Bach's own practice: he often attempted to curry favour by dedicating a piece to a potential patron. Goldberg himself would have been only 14 when the piece was published, and though he was a prodigy - he had been a pupil of Bach's for a time - it is a demanding work to play by any standards. Additionally, Bach had no golden goblet in his estate when he died. And finally, the composition as a whole is anything but soporific, ranging as it does across the emotional gamut from tragic to joyful. But in the absence of any clear proof one way or another, we'll just have to leave the question of this genesis story's authenticity to Bach scholars. The story lives on, however, in the modern name for the composition, the Goldberg Variations.

Gouldberg Variations

In 1955 Bach was not as popular with the public as, say, Chopin or Rachmaninov, and the Goldberg Variations was not much recorded (though Wanda Landowska and a few others had made recordings of it on harpsichord). The Variations was considered at the time to be an austere, scholarly work more suited to theoretical analysis than listening pleasure.

But in that year a brilliant young Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, made his American debut with a performance which had the Variations at its heart. It was a brash move which won the 22-year-old great acclaim. On the basis on a single performance David Oppenheim, director of Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Classical) offered the young man a contract, and Gould's first recording was this very piece. The album was an unprecedented popular and critical success, and even today Gould's 1955 recording of the Variations thrills with its vibrant and incisive originality and its giddy and exuberant virtuosity. At times Gould fairly gallops along, playing at an astonishing pace, yet he is able too to slow down and savour a particularly tragic movement.

Gould was in those days a beautiful young man with romantically long hair - Beatlesque years before The Beatles - and an expressive manner of playing, his body shuddering, his hands reaching out, seeming to express with every line of his body the agony and the ecstasy of this music he so loved. Even then he was already eccentric, playing on a rickety low folding chair that put him on eye level with the keyboard; arriving for his recording sessions decked out in overcoat, hat, and gloves, no matter what the season; popping a bewildering variety of prescription pills for this imagined malady or that one. But oh, the music. So audacious, so assured, so lovely, and from such a young man, a newcomer.

The career of Gould was to take many interesting turns, of course. He eventually gave up performing in public altogether, preferring the womb of the studio to the critical eyes of the crowds. He became fascinated with recording technology and when he decided, in 1981, to re-record the Variations - something he rarely did - the recording was made digitally, using techniques so new that analogue versions were made simultaneously, as back-up. Gould's second recording of the Variations seems more mature and sedate, the pace measured and deliberate, so it's a surprise to learn that the extra length of the later recording occurs principally because Gould chose to repeat certain variations or portions of variations that he particularly favoured. Puritans disapproved of Gould's idiosyncratic repetitions, but of course he didn't care.

In 1981 Gould was 49, though he looked much much older. The beautiful young man had turned into a stooped and wizened sickling with parchment skin and hair falling out in clumps. In spite his obvious illness, this recording too astonishes with its beauty and emotionality. It was released on September 25, 1982; two days later Glenn Gould suffered a massive heart attack and one week later he died, having just turned 50. So Gould's life too evinced a fearful symmetry not unlike the Goldberg Variations' own: the two recordings stand like bookends on either side of his public life, one at the beginning, the other at the end, with all his great works ranged in between. It was partly in homage to the importance of this work for Gould's career that a wonderful film about him was called "32 Short Films about Glenn Gould".

Twenty years after Gould's death, the two versions have just been released in a set which is entitled "A State of Wonder". Included are CDs of both of Gould's recordings of the Variations as well as an interview conducted by Tim Page to accompany the release of the later recording. (Don't be fooled by the repartee between Gould and Page, by the way; Gould scripted and rehearsed the whole thing, as was his wont.) The later recording is here painstakingly restored from analogue because of the poor quality of the original digital release, so we can thank heaven for the cautiousness of the sound engineers at those sessions.

I've been listening to these CDs in wonder all weekend, and I highly recommend it to anyone who's interested in Bach, Gould, or the Goldberg Variations - all extremely worthy subjects of interest, in my view.

The liner notes to "A State of Wonder", along with: