INKPOT#71 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: J.S.BACH The Goldberg Variations – An Inktroduction

The Goldberg Variations
BWV 988, Clavier-Übung IV (1741)

· An Inktroduction ·
by Chua Gan Ee

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The unusual story that is associated with this magnificent keyboard opus is certainly most familiar: Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, former Russian ambassador to the Elector of Saxony, was the unfortunate victim of several bouts of insomnia; and, himself being a music-lover, commissioned a work from Bach to be played by his young keyboard virtuoso, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, during those sleepless nights. This age-old anecdote has, of course, been recently proven untrue – however, the position of this masterpiece in the annals of keyboard history remains unchallenged.

The “Goldberg Variations” stands uniquely in Bach’s entire compositional output: it serves as a final instalment of the four collections of Clavier Übungen, and marks the beginning of the great “speculative” works like the Musical Offering, the Canonic Variations, and The Art of Fugue. At about this time, Bach had somewhat finished with his systematic exploration of keyboard-writing and turned to other challenges he felt he wanted to face in the genre: such as the idea of ‘variation’; in which a single theme with all its possibilities is completely exhausted, and sufficient thought given to more polyphonic writing.

It was no secret also of Bach’s increasing disinterest in his duties as cantor at Leipzig’s ‘St. Thomas’ parish (fewer cantatas and liturgical organ music, among others); due in part to the fact that his music was more often misunderstood than appreciated. Johann Adolph Scheibe, soon-to-be Kapellmeister at Brandenburg-Kulmbach, reproached him for displaying “excessive art” in his music.

From here on, Bach indulged in applying the ‘science’ of musical composition into his creations: this ‘science’, which lay at the crossroads between arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, was central to the last ten years of his life. Some have claimed to discover in these variations (and in their seemingly virtuosic aspects) the influence of Scarlatti; or rather, Bach’s answer to the latter’s Essercizi, also a compendium of thirty pieces. The “Goldberg”, however, begin and end with an Aria; both flanking thirty variations of the theme in a variety of guises. The “Aria” is a sort of sarabande in binary form over a (thirty-two bar) bass containing numerous motifs taken from 17th-century ostinatos and grounds. It can also be found in the second Clavierbüchlein for Anna Magdalena Bach from 1725, therefore contributing to our knowledge of its far earlier existence; and the suspicion that it might not even have been from the composer’s own pen.

The variations which follow are, interestingly, contrary to the Baroque concept of the genre, where the theme is manipulated purely through ornamentation or through its rhythmic division. These are arranged in groups of three so that every third one up to and including No.27 is a canon, first at the unison, then at the 2nd, the 3rd, and so on. This makes altogether nine (3 x 3) canons, each one except the last having an independent bass part, the fourth and fifth both each proceeding by inversion.

Here, the variation takes place not in the theme, but rather the harmonic basis – as in the case of a chaconne or a passacaglia. The bass is not so much varied as metamorphosed, and thus provides the harmonic framework for “thirty keyboard exercises”.

Some of the variations are song-like, others dance-like in turn. Except Nos.15, 21 and 25, all the variations are in the key of G major; and, like the “Aria”, all but five contain exactly the same number of bars. No.2 is a trio sonata, No.7 a gigue, No.10 is a fughetta, No.13 almost a slow concerto-movement while No.16 is a French overture (which inaugurates the second-half of the set).

No. 25 – in G minor – is littered with such chromatic decoration its tonal stability becomes somewhat threatened, while Nos. 28 and 29 appear to presage a nineteenth-century style of keyboard writing. In No.30, in place of the expected canon, Bach writes an ingenuous-sounding but artfully-constructed quodlibet (Latin for “What pleases” – a light-hearted composition comprising several popular tunes of the day). It is a potpourri of well-known tunes and original material known to the composer and the public of his time. The Goldberg Variations marks the end of Bach’s fruitful “middle period” and opens the door to his final one in which the “canon” adopts a seminal place in his creative output.

It took CHUA GAN EE 32 nights to write this review as he could not keep awake to the music – a remedy to insomnia, perhaps?

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