A Performer’s Survey of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Part 1

Beth Levin

[January 2007.]

I am emerging slowly from a state of suspended disbelief concerning my performance of the Bach Goldberg Variations. It has become all too real. I’ve lived with them every day for six months now, read scholars, spoken to a few and listened to the likes of Yudina, Gould, Landowska and Tureck. I’m no stranger to them any longer but neither am I quite ready to show my hand.

During a lesson many years ago, Rudolf Serkin told me that he envied a student who could work on a Mozart sonata for the first time. I understand what he meant. There is something pure about opening the score to a work like the Goldberg Variations with no preconceptions, bias or history. Now that I’m in the thick of it, I’ve seen its challenges and begun to understand its impact. It is from this rather humbling point that I am able to discuss what I see in the music.


Bach wrote the melody for his first wife. A simple, gracious theme, it launches a journey through the heart of humanity. The bass line becomes the basis for the ensuing variations and the structure of 16-bar halves, the first establishing the tonic of G major, the second moving to the dominant of D major. Performing the Aria is a chaste act. The spare lines and French ornaments speak eloquently. One must play from conviction, as if revealing a secret.

Variation I

The two-part invention with its leaps and hand-crossing risks is a joyous start to the set, a shot of adrenalin. Speed and élan are its salient qualities. At the piano one must consider touch, articulation, how short to play each 16th note and how light or heavy to approach sound. These questions and the issue of repetitions will arise again and again for the performer.

Variation II

The opening bass line (g f# g) mimics the opening soprano line of Variation I. One senses a linkage from variation to variation even when mood and tempo vary wildly. This three-part invention with its upper voices in dialogue over a running bass line has quite an ease about it. (Just wait!) For now a pastoral mood prevails.

Variation III

Every third variation is a canon beginning in unison (upper voices beginning on the same note, one measure apart) and by variation 27 at the 9th. Just as important are the dance-like qualities of the running 16ths and a mood of stillness. Bach prepares the way for the intensity ahead.

Variation IV

I love the pesante-like physicality of Variation IV. One can almost make out the stomping of boots on a pine floor. Easily detected, the same few notes repeat in four voices, operating as a contrast to the denser canon in unison where voices are more difficult to delineate. Understanding the structure is essential, whether a canon, toccata, invention or quodlibet. Yet one must remain aware that, as Bach shapes the whole, all the variations’ emotional and spiritual aspects remain at play. At each reading, the performer discovers more of the unspoken qualities that contribute to the Goldberg Variations’ enigmatic aura.

Variation V

Here the pianist confronts hand-crossing at daringly dangerous speeds. Visually appealing, it would have shown Bach at his most virtuosic. One needs to decide which hand reaches above the other in executing the leaps. The toccata has a high-wire brilliance with luscious ornaments to spare. Anyone listening to Gould will be stunned at his tempo.

Variation VI

A charming canon in 3/8, the variation rises and falls in swift scalar patterns. I like to take it light and fast, affording the 16ths the kind of clarity — dare I say it? — more characteristic of a harpsichord. I’m not above imitation! As a child I would put the soft pedal at half throttle in order to achieve a certain clang. I’m reminded of Landowska chiding a pianist: “You play Bach your way and I’ll play it his way.” I’m convinced none the less of the beauty of Bach performed on the piano, even if the pianist is obliged to negotiate a thin line between our thoughts about authenticity and creativity.

Variation VII

A French gigue in 6/8 meter, the seventh variation provides another prominent milestone. Its dotted rhythms and sharp mordents nail the downbeats to earth, thus grounding the listener. Perhaps we are overdue for a discussion of repeats. The music is often performed without repetition of each 16-bar half and it works quite well in that format. However, Bach indicated repeats and in several cases composed a first and second ending.

Embellishments may be added, elongated or amended the second time through. One may consider a lighter or more pointed articulation, in effect creating a different mood. The bass line may overtake the soprano or a pivotal measure highlighted in sound, timing or both. In a straightforward variation such as number seven, one may decide to forego changes and present the two halves unaltered. Performing the Variations with repeats may allow the interpreter greater scope in discovering hidden niches.

The relationship of tempo to repetition is also important. As Professor Robert Levin of Harvard suggests (no relation), one should avoid the temptation to perform certain variations excessively slowly. Even at his most heartfelt, Bach urges a flowing tempo. Knowing, for example, that the Aria is to be repeated, the performer must search and choose a tempo that works.

Variation VIII

I won’t deny that Variation VIII fairly pleads for a double-manual harpsichord. Ralph Kirkpatrick in his 1934 edition of the Goldbergs solves the maze of overlapping lines with the exquisite fingering, thus avoiding the collision of hands that threatens at every juncture. Often one must embrace two voices with one hand to facilitate execution. Here again I favor a quasi-staccato touch, keeping the lines clean and the groupings of relentless 16ths pristine.

Variation IX

This next canon, at the interval of a third, is particularly tender. Sweetly flowing, it is supported by a more intricate bass line than the previous canons. The issue of dynamics is not an easy one. Each variation requires a unique commitment but not in the sense that we approach, say, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The drama of extreme contrasts seems out of place. Rhythmic flow and drive produce their own drama absent superimposed dynamics. Sensitivity to what the music will bear is of supreme concern.

Variation X

Cut time, a fughetta in four voices, this sturdy theme finds its way to all registers of the instrument and, depending on placement, altered in feel. With its distinctive mordent and march-like quality, the tenth variation is our launch pad to a swiftly prancing gigue.

Perhaps this would be a good moment to pause in our survey. I propose two more installments of ten variations in the near future.

I urge the reader to read Ralph Kirkpatrick on interpretation of Bach, Donald Tovey, Glenn Gould and Martin Geck. And to look to the music itself! In Bach we experience the everyday, the witty, the rebellious juxtaposed with the purest instincts. It is an elusive set that keeps us always coming back, coming back, seeking a new revelation.


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