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They spoke about it
Although exploring the possible ties between biography and artwork is often a dubious enterprise, it can be interesting at times to investigate the circumstances accompanying the birth of a particular masterpiece. Unfortunately, it seems that in the case of the Goldberg Variations answers will forever elude us, for the traditional account of their genesis, as originally told in 1802 by Nikolaus Forkel Bach’s first biographer, is now considered to be no more than an amiable tale. Forkel’s description of the episode is nevertheless worth a closer look.
In 1736, Bach was appointed Court Composer to the King of Poland and the Elector of Saxony, through the intervention of Count Hermann von Keyserling—not to be confused with Dietrich von Keyserling, friend and mentor of Frederick the Great who died in 1745. A protégé of czarina Anna Ivanovna, Hermann was Russian Ambassador for close to thirty years in Dresden, Vienna, Berlin and Warsaw, where he died in 1764.
In 1747, he was instrumental in arranging the meeting between Bach and Frederick the Great in Berlin. Staying in the Count’s home in Dresden in 1741—his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, incidentally, was working in Dresden at the time—Bach, according to Forkel, presented his host with the Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen, known today as the “Goldberg Variations.” Forkel claims that the variations had been commissioned by Count Keyserling, and adds that “the Count gave [the composer] a golden goblet containing one hundred louis d’or.” Both claims are doubtful: no dedication appears on the first edition of the work, prepared by Balthasar Schmid in Nuremberg in late 1741 or early 1742 (still extant are 18 copies of this first edition, one of which, discovered in 1975, discloses corrections made by Bach after publication), and no trace of such a goblet can be found in the documents linked to the Bach family. It seems the Count suffered ill health, chronic insomnia certainly not being the least of his afflictions. Keyserling had at his service a young man he had adopted as companion to his own son, a harpsichordist, student of Wilhelm Friedemann, named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg.
It was, still according to Forkel, “to relieve the tedium of sleepless nights” that the Count often asked young Goldberg to perform some of the variations. Apart from the fact that Goldberg was only fourteen at the time—he died in 1756 at the age of twenty-nine—the work, needless to say, is far from soporific, nor is it simply pleasant; and in the unlikely event that the story is indeed true, and thus the “treatment” effective, “we are left,” as Glenn Gould so mischievously noted “with some doubt as to the authenticity of Master Goldberg’s rendition of this incisive and piquant score.” Although they certainly pleased the Count, the Goldberg Variations, published as the fourth part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung series, had no other purpose than to exist for their own sake, while unwittingly immortalizing the name of the young musician.
At the time Bach was composing the Goldbergs, writing in the variation style essentially consisted of progressively altering a melody by various means (often ingenious and virtuosic ornamentation, diminution, “commentaries” or doubles), but also of outfitting a theme with a contrapuntal fabric—often learned counterpoint—or to set on a short ground bass (itself more or less varied at times) a few melodic fragments, each following the same harmonic progression. Bach contributed magnificently to the latter genre with his D-minor Chaconne for solo violin and his great Organ Passacaglia, but apart from the Aria variata alla maniera italiana, an early harpsichord work inspired by Pachelbel, as well as several chorale variation Bach’s forays into variation form were infrequent and few. At first glance one could think that the Goldbergs are variations in name only, for they do not follow traditional practice, nevertheless showing themselves to be the supreme and transcendent pinnacle of the genre.
The Aria that serves as the starting point is a beautiful sarabande in G major—close in style to those of the French Suites—that also appears in the Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach, probably copied there at the time of the Goldbergs’ composition. It is 32 measures long and follows the usual binary division. It was not its richly embellished melody that attracted Bach’s attention, but its bass line: divided into four eight-measure-long sections—one dotted half note per measure—the line serves as the foundation of the entire structure, against a foreground of continuous transformation.
The four-note descending motion of its first section, typical of ostinatos of the period, had been used by many composers of the previous century, as well as by Handel in the two G-major Chaconnes of his 1733 harpsichord collection. On the support offered by this bass line, Bach composes thirty pieces, or variations, so that, with the Aria performed at the beginning and at the end, the work totals thirty-two movements, the same as the number of measures in the Aria. Even though the process is related to the ostinato, it would be inaccurate to view the Goldbergs as an immense Passacaglia, for the sections are not linked for organ, there is no gradual increase in virtuosity, each piece has its own melodic design, and each new variation brings changes to both harmonic sequence and the rhythmic signature.
The pieces of which each has its own melody appear ordered in ten groups of three variations each—”like the pillars of an elaborate colonnade,” to follow Ralph Kirkpatrick’s description—while, at a higher level, the work is clearly articulated in mid-course, the second part opening with a French overture. The third segment of each group is a canon, with the entrances of the upper voices gradually moving up a step, from unison to ninth. Variation 30 is a Quodlibet—a polyphonic musical joke and drinking-song—that juxtaposes two popular tunes: Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (“Cabbage and turnips had me fleeing”) and “Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west” (I have long been away from thee); some commentators feel both songs are related, the absence of meat alluded to in the first accounting for the subject of the second. Others have seen in the “cabbage and turnips” the variations themselves, so occupying the composer that he neglected his friends.
The pieces display an extraordinary range of writing techniques, and three variations are in G minor (15th, 21st and 25th). Counterpoint is a constant feature, not reserved solely for the canons; amongst other examples, variations 2 and 27 are two- and three-part inventions, variation 4 offers four-part imitation, variation 10 is a fughetta and variation 22 is presented as an alla breve—to all of which we should add the fugal section of the French overture. Many variations embrace more or less sharply defined dance rhythms: siciliana (3rd and 24th), passepied (4th), French gigue (7th), Italian giga (11th), sarabande (13th and 25th) or minuet (19th). Both keyboards contribute to the virtuosic display of some variations (5th, 11th, 14th, 17th, 20th, 23rd, 26th and 28th) with hand-crossings which Scarlatti—whose 1738 Essercizi Bach might have known—would not disavow.
“Conceived as a cycle of gradual and exhaustive modification of a self-contained musical cell,” to quote Alberto Basso, the Goldberg Variations espouse “the ‘modern’ concept of the variation” and form a unique architectonic construction. Through the diverse variation techniques, contrapuntal combinations, rhythmic gestures and dazzling keyboard virtuosity, through the beauty and abundant variety of its themes—not to forget its playful character and humorous conclusion—the set both synthesizes and surpasses all forms of music writing.
The Goldberg Variations, fruit of Bach’s meticulous effort to generate diversity from a single, fundamental unit, equal the other great cyclical works of the cantor’s late years, the Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue. In the Goldbergs, Bach obtains the most freedom possible within his self-imposed frame. History would have to wait until Beethoven to witness a concept of variation form of such a nature and breadth.
© François Filiatrault, 1997
Translation: Alex Benjamin