Our music for this week is the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach.
(This is Glenn Gould’s recording of the variations, which is widely regarded as one of the best performances ever to be played on the piano).
The famous variations got their iconic name when a Russian noble visited Leipzig and asked Bach to train his court pianist Goldberg how to become a more accomplished keyboard player. Bach eagerly complied and turned Goldberg into an impressive performer, and the Russian noble extended a gift to Bach in the form of a golden goblet filled to the brim with gold coins. As it turned out, the Russian noble was prone to frequent sleepless nights and long bouts of insomnia. He later wrote to Bach asked that he write some music that would help him to fall asleep. Bach managed to carve out some time over the course of that year to write the variations that we now know as the Goldberg variations, named after the pianist for whom they were intended.
The variations are the epitome of Baroque compositional style in every way. As usual with Bach, the structuring and layout of the work is amazing, even to the point of being unfathomable. All 32 variations are built on the same bass line, which happens to have exactly 32 notes. Every single opening Aria contains a different iteration of this bass line, each time with a new form of embellishment, so that the listener always thinks that (s)he is hearing a new melody when in fact Bach is just continually recycling the original theme. Every three Arias is written in a canon format, while every 9th Aria is a canon with an added fugue in the tenor line. (The number 3, representing the Holy Trinity, appears everywhere in Bach’s music). Bach appears to have also woven a different German folk tune into the harmonic texture of every 9th Aria, apparently just for the fun of rubbing his overwhelming genius in our face yet again. We see the number 3 again in the way the types of movements are structured; the pattern always starts with a fugue, continues with a toccata, and finishes with a canon. However, Bach was also able to work into the music a structure of harmonic elements based on the meter of the work, which has 4 beats for every measure. Every variation can therefore also be divided perfectly into 16-bar phrases, which also have identically harmonized 4-bar sub-phrases, and this exactitude continues throughout all 32 variations. Not only that, but the entire set of 32 is divided in half, giving us two 16-variation sections, each of which are grouped in melodic sub-groups of 4. To top it all off, the structure of the variations is so perfectly organized that Bach was able to end each melodic sub-group of 4 variations with a key that harmonically leads directly into the key of the opening Aria of the next set of 4. And remember, he did this for 32 variations in a row – all while showcasing the full virtuosic capacity of the pianist through multiple hand-crossing passages and numerous running lines and while continuing to juggle his daily duties of composer, conductor, teacher, singer, organist, and father of 18 children. This is just one example of the absolutely staggering genius of J.S. Bach.