Bernard Lagacé is a native of Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. Since the 1950’s, he has been a leader in the revival of the classical organ in North America. He is an internationally known performer and teacher, [...]
They spoke about it
The work commonly referred to as the Goldberg Variations constitutes the fourth and last part of J.S. Bach Clavier-Übung (“keyboard exercises”), published in 1741 (and not 1742 as was commonly believed until recently). The title, however, is not from Bach himself, who simply called the work Aria and Diverse Variations. Its origins can be traced to the extensive text Forkel dedicated to the work in his biography of the composer, published in 1802. According to Forkel, the variations were commissioned by Count Kayserlingk, and were to be played at night by court harpsichordist Gottlieb Goldberg, a student of Bach (1725-1756, thus 14 years of age in 1741…), to help alleviate the Count’s chronic insomnia. The story is quite evocative, but its veracity has been put to doubt by modern musicologists. I see, however, no reason to dismiss it entirely, even if it was probably embellished in the Bach family saga, the source of Forkel’s biography.
More important, music lovers should be aware of the structure of the work, and realize that these are not variations on a theme, but rather on a given bass line. The Goldberg Variations constitute one long chaconne or passacaille — the difference between the two being rather unclear in the baroque era. The variations, however, are completely autonomous, instead of being linked, and also much more elaborate since the bass contains four periods of eight measures each (for a total of thirty-two measures), instead of the usual four or eight. The work is made up of 30 variations preceded by an aria in the form of a sarabande, which is taken up again at the end, for a total of 32 pieces.
Each of these pieces is divided in two equal sections, each one being repeated (for reasons of space, only the first part is repeated in this recording). Furthermore, the work is divided into nine groups of three variations, each group consisting of a canon, from the unison to the ninth, followed by a free-form variation (which can be a dance, an ornamented aria, a fughetta, etc.), and, finally, a virtuoso style two-part variation for crossed hands. The first group is prefaced by two variations which stand as the “gateway” of the work; the piece ends with a Quodlibet in which Bach superimposes the fundamental bass with two popular melodies: “The Cabbage and the Rape Chased Me Away, Had My Mother Cooked Meat, I Would Have Stayed,” and “It’s Been So Long Since I’ve Been Near You.” The work is clearly divided into two equal sections of 15 variations.
The first section ends with a suspenseful canon at the interval of the fifth which concludes with in an empty fifth at the extremes of the keyboard — a virtual existential questioning on the meaning of life (after which it is advisable for the listener to take a short pause); the second half of the work opens with an overture in the French style, an eloquent affirmation of life’s splendor; the work closes with the Quodlibet, which triumphs over all doubts and passionately magnifies the glory of human existence. Bach has thus constructed here an im-mense and rigorous structure, which has justly been qualified as “cosmic.” For these variations, he has chosen the key of G major, symbolic for him of a joyous affirmation of life (a constantly serene joy, in my view more closely related to Apollo than to Dionysus…). Three variations, however, are in the key of G minor, being thus much darker, reaching even intense chromatic pathos in the Adagio of the 25th variation.
Without losing sight of the playful character of many variations, I have mostly tried to bring out in my interpretation of the work its great emotional power and its intense and exquisite musicality; in other words, I have tried to project the image of what the Goldberg Variations are for me: a Poem of Light… Now, I must answer the unavoidable question: Why perform the Goldberg Variations on the organ when Bach specifically wrote in the title of the work that they had been composed “for a two manual harpsichord?” Well, first of all, let us remember that the distinction between writing for the organ and writing for the harpsichord was often unclear in the baroque era, and in Bach’s day there still existed a long tradition of composing for the “keyboard” — as is eloquently demonstrated in his Well-Tempered Clavier —, while the use of an independant voice assigned to the pedals was far from the norm in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is also important to note that, in Bach’s day, much of the music written for the harpsichord could be played on a single keyboard instrument; the Goldberg Variations differ in that they must be played on a double keyboard. In any case, one can assume that Bach would probably be much less surprised to hear his work performed on an organ rather than on a modern piano… If I must justify myself further, let me say that I feel that anything which throws a new light or generates new interest in a work is ultimately good. Furthermore, a judicious choice of organ registers allows for greater characterization of the variations, giving each one a distinct “personality” as it were. Lastly, by constantly endeavouring for a more supple and diversified touch and articulation, I have tried not to add any unnecessary “weight” to the work, but rather to enhance its intemporal nature by the sustained sounds of the organ.
Aria — Sarabande
Variation 1: Bicinium; two-part invention.
Variation 2: Three-part invention.
Variation 3: Two-part canon at the unison, with independent bass.
Variation 4: Four-part; as a Passepied.
Variation 5: Two-part; for one or two keyboards; arabesque variation (crossed hands).
Variation 6: Two-part canon at the interval of the second, with independent bass.
Variation 7: Two-part; for one or two keyboards; gigue.
Variation 8: Variation — Arabesque, for 2 keyboards (crossed hands).
Variation 9: Two-part canon at the interval of the third, with independent bass.
Variation 10: Four-part; fughetta.
Variation 11: Variation — Arabesque in 12/16 time (crossed hands).
Variation 12: Canon at the interval of the fourth by contrary motion; two-parts with independent bass.
Variation 13: Ornamented aria, for Soprano with two-part accompaniment (on 2 keyboards).
Variation 14: Variation — Arabesque, like a concerto movement.
Variation 15: G-minor canon in the interval of the fifth by contrary motion; two-part, with independent bass.
Variation 16: Overture in the French style.
Variation 17: As for Variation 14.
Variation 18: Canon at the interval of the sixth; alla breve; two-part, with independent bass.
Variation 19: Three-part, as a minuet.
Variation 20: As for Variations 14 and 17.
Variation 21: G-minor canon at the interval of the seventh; two-part, with chromatic independent bass.
Variation 22: Four-part, alla breve; Fugato
Variation 23: As for Variations 14, 17 and 20.
Variation 24: Two-part canon at the interval of the octave, with independent bass.
Variation 25: Soprano ornamented aria in G minor, with intensely chromatic accompaniment.
Variation 26: Variation — arabesque, one of the hands alternatively with the rhythm of the sarabande.
Variation 27: Two-part canon at the interval of the ninth, without bass.
Variation 28: As in a concerto movement; freestyle; study in written-out and double trills.
Variation 29: As a concerto movement; freestyle study in alternating chords for one or two keyboards.
Variation 30: Four-part quodlibet using two popular melodies and the fundamental bass.
Aria de Capo — Sarabande
© Bernard Lagacé, January, 1996