BWV 988, part one

Beth Levin

[July 2006.]

I’m starting work on the Goldberg Variations, I’m starting work on the Goldberg Variations, I’m…. If I say it often enough, perhaps I’ll believe it. In point of harsh fact, I’m scheduled to play them in April 2007. For a musician, opening the book to the Aria is rather like opening the Book of Genesis. I’m awed, bowled over, speechless — and crazy with anticipation.

Everyone and his cousin know more than I do about the work — my upstairs neighbor, my dry cleaner. I’m starting in a void, a picture-perfect tabula rasa. Yes, I have the far-off, child’s memory of listening to Glenn Gould, and some of the ornamentation in the Aria seems to unfold instinctively. But I’m pretty much a dry well waiting for the rains. I suppose I don’t want to know too much, not yet at least. If I even think of Tureck, Gould, Landowska, Leonhardt, Kirkpatrick — the Olympian array — I wilt. I’d rather go in cold, see what I see, feel what I feel. The fun is in the exploration, the sight-reading, the breaking apart of voices and putting them together. No recording or treatise can really do that for you.

As a child I studied a good bit of Bach: the inventions, preludes and fugues, suites, concerti and the Brandenburgs’ keyboard parts, only later to abandon him for the large Romantic works. What brought me home was a recent Mozart concert and the Chopin E minor Concerto in which clarity and energy, emotional range and purity of voices are paramount. A few friends suggested I play the Goldberg. A bug in the ear is sometimes a powerful force.

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The Goldberg Variations were published in 1741 under the following title: Clavierübung 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.

Nürnberg: Published by Balthasar Schmid.

The work’s popular title owes its existence to Forkel’s famous account of a story first told at the beginning of the 19th century. As far as we can determine, it was not the composer’s original title, at least at the time of publication. Nonetheless the story is worth revisiting. Forkel received numerous pieces of it first-hand, along with information from Bach’s eldest sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel.


For this model … we are indebted to Count Keyserlingk, formerly Russian envoy to the court of the Elector of Saxony, who frequently resided in Leipzig, and brought with him Goldberg, who has been mentioned above, to have him instructed by Bach in music. The Count was often sickly, and then had sleepless nights. At these times Goldberg, who lived in the house with him, had to pass the night in an adjoining room to play something to him when he could not sleep. The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought he could best fulfil this wish by variations, which, on account of the constant sameness of the fundamental harmony, he had hitherto considered as an ungrateful task. But as at this time all his works were models of art, these variations also became such under his hand. This is, indeed, the only model of the kind that he has left us. The Count thereafter called them nothing but his variations. He was never weary of hearing them; and for a long time, when the sleepless nights came, he used to say: “Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.” Bach was, perhaps, never so well rewarded for any work as for this: the Count made him a present of a golden goblet, filled with a hundred Louis d’ors. But their worth as a work of art would not have been paid if the present had been a thousand times as great.

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Eminent harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick writes: “However much it is an act of impudence thus to discuss something which is far too profound and complex to be grasped in words, it seems necessary in order to explain all that has been said before, to confess some of the feelings which inevitably come with the playing of this music.”

The following is a description of the work with an aim towards defining the character of each variation (dance, canon, toccata, etc.) and showing the challenge for the performer.

The variations’ titles were set by the harpsichordist Jörg Ewald Dähler and his master, Fritz Neumeyer, revised by Hans-Ruedi Schuetz, January 2005:

Aria This aria appears as a theme entitled ‘Sarabande’ in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, composed in 1725 (26th piece, BWV 988/1).

Variation 1 (Les Polonaises) 3/4: Two-voice invention, courante style. Concerto grosso style.

Variation 2 (La Conversation galante) 2/4: Three-voice symphony (symphonia), formality of trio sonata, solo style.

Variation 3 (Les deux Bergers) 12/8: Canone all’unisono. Two-voice canon at the unison with an independent bass line. The upper voice commences one phrase (bar) after the lower voice.

Variation 4 (La Danse des Bergers, Passepied) 3/8: Passepied, tutti style, its image is of “leaping dance music,” in four voices.

Variation 5 (Les Jongleurs – á la Scarlatti) 3/4: Two-voice invention, which requires crossing of the hands (voice parts).

Variation 6 (L’Enchaînement magique) 3/8: Canone alla seconda. Two-voice canon at the second interval with independent bass line. The upper voice enters one phrase after the lower one.

Variation 7 (La Joyeuse) 6/8: Two-voice gigue or siciliano. Solo style (independent melodic line in the upper voice).

Variation 8 (Les Vagues) 3/4: Free-style variation. Two-voice invention, which requires crossing of the hands (voices).

Variation 9 (Les Anges) 4/4: Canone alla terza. Two-voice canon at the third, with an independent bass line. The upper voice commences a phrase (bar) after the lower voice.

Variation 10 (Les petits Soldats de la Garde du Château) 2/2: Free-style variation. Four-voice Fughetta.

Variation 11 (Les Papillons) 12/16: Two-voice gigue or toccata-style music which requires crossing of the hands.

Variation 12 (Narcisse) 3/4: Canone alla quarta. Two-voice mirror Canon at the interval of perfect fourth. Right and left sides of the lower voice are reversed on the upper voice and start one phrase after.

Variation 13 (La Sérénade) 3/4: Free variation. Cantirena solo style. Aria is decorated over the two-voice bass.

Variation 14 (Le Reveil du Matin) 3/4: Concerto-type music which requires very high technique of crossing of hands. Two voice parts.

Variation 15 (Der Schlaf ist der Spiegel des Todes) 2/4: Canone alla quinta. G minor. Andante. A free-style bass and a contrastive two-voice mirror canon at the fifth interval. The upper voice commences from the other way around and one bar after the lower voice.

Variation 16 (Ouverture) 2/2 and 3/8: A grand French overture. Free-style music.

Variation 17 (L’Orgue) 3/4: Concerto-type two-voice movement, similar to Variation 14.

Variation 18 (Les Graces) 2/2: Canone alla sexta. Two-voice canon at the sixth interval, alla breve bourrée style. The upper voice commences half a bar after the lower voice.

Variation 19 (La Danse des Nains) 3/8: Free-style variation, Barcarole three-voice Minuet.

Variation 20 (Les Colombes) 3/4: It requires crossing of hands and high skills, movement of 16th notes at weak beats. Two-voice concerto-type music.

Variation 21 (La Plainte) 4/4: Canone alla aettima. G minor. Two-voice canon at the seventh interval, with a free chromatic-scale bass. The upper voice commences half a bar after the lower voice.

Variation 22 (La Majesteuse) 2/2: A tour de force alla breve three-voice fugato. Free-style music.

Variation 23 (Pantalone et Arlecchino) 3/4: Two-voice concerto-type music, requiring a crossing of hands and very high technique. Harmony on the weak beats.

Variation 24 (La Berceuse des Bergers) 9/8: Canone all’ottava. Two-voice canon at the octave; a gigue-style free bass accompanies. Siciliano, pastorale style. The upper voice commences two bars after the lower voice.

Variation 25 (Miserere) 9/8: Free-style G minor variation. Adagio. Decorated aria develops over the two-voice chromatic-scale bass. Solo style. Violin and 4/4 bass line.

Variation 26 (La Sarabande du Roy) 3/4 and 18/16: Three voice parts. The upper voice is the Aria, the lower is the 3/4 Coral Sarabande which has an 18/16 voice like a stream. The functions are alternated by both hands.

Variation 27 (Les Delices de L’Esprit) 6/8: Canone alla nona. Two-voice canon at the ninth. Giga style. The following part starts after one bar. This is the only piece without free antagonized bass part.

Variation 28 (Les Sources) 3/4: Trill variation. Free-style, technical concerto-type movement. It contains many trills and turns like a practicing piece.

Variation 29 (Les Cascades) 3/4: Also a practicing type movement with a harmony on weak beats.

Variation 30 4/4: Four voice parts. Three-voice quodlibet with a free-style bass. Quodlibet is a type of chorus in Bach’s era that some people sang together as a favorite tune. Here is the combination of the theme of the work, bass line with two folk tunes (“Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west,” “Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben”).

Aria reprise.

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A perhaps apocryphal story and an overview of the variations are not a lot to go on. And I haven’t even touched on the piano-harpsichord controversy. (The “Goldbergs” — already I take liberties!) Over the next few months I promise a deeper look, step by step, into the poetry and joy that lie within this masterpiece. I can see that the leap from the pure-as-snow Aria to the bustling, energetic first variation is a preview of Bach’s unpredictability of genius at achieving the physical and the spiritual in a single stroke. For now let’s leave the recordings in their cases and plunge into the score.


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