A Performer’s Survey of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Part 3

Beth Levin

[May 2007.]

Variation XXI — Canon at the 7th

Coming as it does after a virtuoso variation, XXI feels doubly poignant. The opening stretch’s ascending-descending 16ths relax into a sad elegance, an incomplete plea. At measure 4, a suspended E flat is further evidence of an unrequited longing. This is a fulfilling variation for the performer in that it is written so evenly for four voices that it seems to flow effortlessly. The use of ties enables one line to offer itself seamlessly to another, resulting in the sense that something is urging the voices forward.

Variation XXII, Alla Breve

Martial and fugue-like, Variation XXII has the strength of simplicity. The utterly clear bass line echoes the Aria, laying out the entire work’s ground bass. The ornamentation at measure 11 consists of a trill lasting two and a half measures. In the repeat I added other mordents, a quick descending line of eighth notes and an arpeggio’s flourish. Sensing what works arises equally from experience and instinct. In preparing for a performance, I leave just enough room for spur-of-the-moment embellishments.

Variation XXIII

Scales like waterfalls, double thirds and sixths prancing with energy and élan: more feats of technique. Most of the fast notes can be played lightly, bespeaking precision and speed. The main point is to voice the top of the double thirds in order to maintain a melodic line from one hand to the other. Measure 7 of the second half reaches a definitive cadence in E minor, creating a strong, sustained moment before a liquid gush of 16ths.

Variation XXIV, a dance in 9/8 and a canon at the octave

The dance falls easily into groups of three eighths that seem to run without pause to the very end. The voices keep their autonomy, advancing the plot with charm, never dissolving into an opaque stew. The trills in the second half of the variation, evenly divided between left and right hands, fairly shimmer. One must be careful to repeat in every voice mordents first introduced in the soprano. A long bass trill in just the right measure proved wonderfully dramatic.

Variation XXV

Wanda Landowska called it the “Black Pearl.” Glenn Gould wrote, “The appearance of this wistful, weary cantilena is a master stroke of psychology.” Arriving at variation XXV is like finding a clearing where one can rest and perhaps regret what has been lost. Activity halts as the ruminating 16ths in Adagio (Bach’s own marking) wind and unwind, and the tie, always the tie, holds melody back before the bar line, delaying resolution. Timing and sound, motion and the stay of motion — one molds time like clay, revealing emotional undercurrents. On the whole, this is a time to forego forced feelings, allowing the melancholy to form on its own by way of slowly accruing 16ths within an excruciatingly beautiful melody.

Variation XXVI

Even though some scholars suggest playing variation XXVI slowly, no one’s opinion is going to hold me back after the Black Pearl’s introspection. Launching into lightning 16ths simply feels like the right thing to do. Another piece widely regarded as a technical feat, it is written in two time signatures, 18/16 for the melody and 3/4 in the accompaniment. The real challenge may lie in judging the best spacing from XXV to XXVI and mustering the energy the romp requires.

Variation XXVII

This is a pure canon at the 9th in 6/8 time as well as the work’s final canon. The score stipulates two manuals. (Todd Welbourne, a professor of piano at the School of Music, University of Wisconsin at Madison, informs me that the school actually owns a two-manual Steinway that was recently used in a performance of these variations.)

The gracefully lilting XXVII’s delicate eighth notes plead for a mordent in the repeats. The beginning of the second half turns the melody on its head with a charming result. The spare dual voices, serving as a palette refresher, mark the beginning of the end of our journey.

Variation XXVIII

A shimmering etude. Eighth notes and 16ths in the outer voices frame delicate trills with a hint of melody. At measure nine the voices converge into arpeggios lacking flutter notes. The original idea reemerges at measure 13. The effect of trills and balletic leaps produces a meld of dance and etude. The challenge is to reveal the melody’s direction while maintaining the trills’ delicacy and charm.

Variation XXIX

The brilliance and motion of XXVIII and XXIX promote a grand flow to the end of the work. XXIX opens with staggered chords that remind one of a pipe organ. As in the preceding variation, at measure nine new material takes over. Lilting triplets, delicate and exposed, skip to the first half’s conclusion. They extend into the variation’s second half, interrupted only by the original chords at measure 5. As we approach Variation XXX and the Aria’s reprise, the sense of dramatic motion is palpable.

Variation XXXQuodlibet

Bach, who seems to have intended the Quodlibet as comic relief, based it on German folk songs. Here are two: “I have so long been away from you / come closer, come closer,” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away / had my mother cooked meat I’d have opted to stay.” In its jovial way, the Quodlibet leads us back to the Aria, its earthiness quite the perfect foil to the work’s spiritual finality.

Aria da Capo

With the return to the Aria’s ineffable beauty, everyone — listener, performer, musicologist, score reader — is moved by the music’s cyclical nature. Having traversed the joy, pathos, humor, tenderness and energy of the 30 preceding variations, we approach the end in awe. People have told me they weep at the final G, a suspended F sharp seems never to resolve. Is this the end or a transition? Bach reflects on the human condition as only a sublime genius can.


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