A talk on the Goldberg Variations

The following is a short talk I gave on the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach at the University of York in February of 2011; many flights of fancy aside, it’s worth sharing, I think:

The Goldberg Variations: A Few Remarks.

”Count Kayserling, formerly Russian Ambassador at the Court of the Elector of Saxony, who frequently resided in Leipzig…once said t Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his [court harpsichordist] 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…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’or. But their worth as a work of art would not have been paid if the present had been a thousand times as great.”

So wrote Sebastian Bach’s first biographer J.N. Forkel in his brief account of the master’s life (1802). Whether a story with such fantastic overtones (the hundred gold coins, an insomniac Count) is true is, however, irrelevant when compared to the very legendary quality of this music itself. Even when compared to the whole of Bach’s considerable and varied output, the ‘Goldberg’ Variations stand out as an example of their creator’s total compositional originality. In conceiving such a work, Bach had no discernible models as regards the Goldbergs’ larger-scale architectonics or the exploitation of innovations in keyboard technique and figuration. Desirous as every listener and melamine is of surrendering oneself to the sheer aural beauty of this music – after all, Bach’s own title page specifically states his work to be ”prepared for the soul’s delight” (Gemueths-Ergetzung) – any listener of Bach’s music has a responsibility to familiarise himself with the constructs and aims that drove Bach to commit this music to posterity. We must not forget that while Bach was no academic, he was certainly a thinking man. He confronted his spiritual and intellectual questions, stated his vision of the universe, and perhaps even grappled with the joys and disappointments of his life through the medium of the written note.

The Goldberg Variations are amongst the mere handful of works written in any time or place that truly require a sort of road-map for the listener. Unlike, say, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Handel (op. 31), the successive movements of Bach’s work are not considered solely in terms of ”musical-emotional cause and effect” (e.g., textural variety for its own sake, meant to inspire solely visceral responses). Rather, our Bach constructed these variations on a pre-conceived plan: most obviously, the thirty variations are made up of ten groups of three, in which a movement of what the scholar Peter Williams has called a ”clear-genre piece” (a dance, a fugue, an overture, an arioso, et al.) is followed by a virtuoso piece featuring the crossing of the hands and then by a canon. In turn, each successive canon is composed with reference to successively rising intervals: Therefore, variation 3 is a canon at the unison, whereas variation 6 is at the second, and so on and so forth until variation 27, a canon at the ninth. As I will further argue below, Bach’s plan may even have a narrative intent, which is perhaps why variation 30 breaks the cycle of canons. Aesthetically speaking, some of the variations seem even to be used as dramatic foils to one another – hence, the bittersweet cantilena of variation 13 is answered with the schizophrenic exuberance of variation 14, and the question posed by the inconclusive ending of variation 15 is followed by a stately overture in variation 16.

To say a brief word or two on matters of keyboard technique in Bach’s work, it may the case – in spite of the usual tones of orthodox Bach scholarship! – that Bach did not always work in a total inspirational vacuum. Interestingly, only three years before Bach engraved and printed his variations, 1738 saw the publication of a set of pieces famous for introducing the world to hand-crossings and devilish keyboard acrobatics: Domenico Scarlatti’s Essercizi. There are further interesting parallels – for one, Scarlatti’s volume also contains thirty movements. Who is to say that Bach would not have known of these pieces? After all, he knew many a publication of music from the libraries of his erudite friends and kinsmen, and even a subscription list for the Paris printing of quartets by Telemann lists a ”M[onsieur] Bach, de Leipsic.”

After considering but a few structural aspects of Bach’s work, we may ask one final question. What drove Bach to compose such a work? Even if the story of the insomniac Count is true, such legends can never really explain a composer’s compulsion to actually say something as an artist and creator. Personally, I venture to guess that the answer may be found in Bach’s own life. What was happening around and perhaps a few years before 1741?

Bach’s letters from the late 1730s show a man who felt persecuted and misunderstood and who also suffered a great deal of personal pain. In a series of letters from 1738, we see that Bach’s troubled son Johann Gottfried Bernhard had skipped town from an important position as an organist in Muehlhausen due to having accrued considerable debts. For almost two years, J.S. Bach lost track of his son, who eventually died, away from home, in Jena (of what? and how?) at the age of 24. He wrote in one letter, desperate in trying to find his son: ”I must bear my cross in patience, and leave my unruly son to God’s patience alone….” Equally significant, I think, is a letter from the Leipzig Town Council, dated 17 March 1739, pointing out to Bach that the performance of the St. John Passion is to be cancelled because of not having been officially approved by the Council. Bach’s understated and obviously hurt reply cannot but inspire sadness in even the most hard-hearted reader: ”he [Bach] answered:…he did not care, for he got nothing out of it anyway, and it was only a burden.”

The effect of these and other tribulations was considerable – recent scholarship on the Bach cantatas shows that by the late 1730s the composer stopped regularly writing new cantatas and mostly resigned himself to performances of works by other composers. Rather, in his last decade, he turned inward and wrote his finest music in genres that had mostly gone out of fashion or were musically and intellectually far above the heads of his contemporaries: the Goldberg Variations (1741), the Musical Offering (1747), and the Art of Fugue (1749-1750). No one noticed – the Art of Fugue, for example, didn’t even sell enough copies to pay for the copper plates used to engrave them – and he didn’t care. As far as Bach was concerned, to paraphrase a remark made by Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s unforgettable ‘A Man for All Seasons,’ his audience was himself and God – ”a pretty good public, that.”

The thirtieth variation – the ”Quodlibet” – may have something to do with this. According to various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, the quodlibet was a genre defined by the simultaneous singing of various popular tunes. According to Bach’s sons, Bach family members would meet and sing quodlibets and ”laugh heartily” (Forkel). Being variation 30, however, this piece should instead be a canon according to the pattern set out in the rest of the work. But Bach decides to conclude on a different note altogether, with the combination of these tunes:

(a) Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest
”I have been so long away from you”

(b) Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben
”Cabbage and beets have driven me away”

Perhaps these songs are allusion to jokes within the family. Or, in considering Bach’s own life, could the first song in particular allude to something deeper? Again, back to Bach and where he was in life in the early 1740s: by this point, several of his children were dead, as were his first wife, his parents (who both had died by the time he was ten years of age), and his brothers; he lived in a town in which a group of faceless councillors desultorily insulted or ignored his work, and in most of Germany the name ”Bach” generally referred to one of his sons. He probably still felt the stung of his being hired as the Cantor of the Thomaskirche in 1723, when a councillor wrote that ”since a first or second-rate candidate cannot be procured, we must settle for a mediocre one.”

So what is the quodlibet about, then? In nine canons, we have climbed the steps to perfection (9 = 3×3, 3 being the ”perfect” number of the Trinity), and what is our reward in Heaven? We get to see our family. Maybe Bach remembered a song from his childhood, or a joke told by his brothers, or imagined – as adults – his children who died in infancy. And the repetition of the aria at the end? Briefly allowed to see his family in Paradise, our Bach wakes up. It was all a dream after all. In this variation, I am forever reminded of an unforgettable song from the great Johnny Cash:

“Daddy sang bass (Mama sang tenor)
Me and little brother would join right in there
Singin’ seems to help a troubled soul
One of these days and it won’t be long
I’ll rejoin them in a song
I’m gonna join the family circle at the throne….”

Academically, there is no proof of this narrative intent, but in my mind, Bach’s music itself leaves no doubt of something deeper. We can explain his music with all the charts and tables and numbers we want, but that only explains how. If we are going to listen to Bach, play his music, and love him, then we have to answer this: why.

© Mahan Esfahani