A Light in the Darkness: Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, composed towards the end of Bach’s life, are one of his “summation” works. In these works, and here on a single instrument no less, he presents the entire history of music, synthesizing diverse styles from Italian Aria to French Overture. Depending on how many of the repeats are taken, a performance can last upwards of eighty minutes. This is peak Bach, equal parts mathematical precision and human emotion fused as one. When they were published in 1741, Bach remarked that they were “prepared for the soul’s delight of lovers of music.” That’s just about right.

So, what makes the Goldberg Variations so special? They are, after all, 80 minutes of harpsichord largely in the key of G major. The same harmonies repeat over and over again, leading at least one critic jokingly to call the Goldberg Variations a monument to monotony. Yet within this deceptively simple compositional framework, Bach’s genius shines through. The theme is symetrically spaced, with 32 bars of the theme, replicated by the 30 variations plus the two framing themes. The fundamental bass is also 32 bars long. Variation 15, the halfway point, is the first of only three composed in minor key closes out the first set in melancholy fashion, only to be immediately reset by Variation 16, composed in grand French Overture style. Every note is exactly where it should be according to mathemtical precision. And yet this isn’t music composed by an unfeeling computer. Bach’s inherent joy comes spilling out of the music, lifting up both performer and audience alike.

The Goldberg Variations are grouped into ten sets of three variations, with each third variation written as a canon (i.e., a round like Row, Row, Row Your Boat). Adding to the complexity, each successive cannon sets the voices at progressively wider intervals. Trying to follow the themes in these is like trying to run through a maze at top speed—you keep hitting dead ends and completely losing your way.

The final variation is a “quodlibet”–an improvisation in which multiple songs are combined. The Bach family was fond of this sort of musical game and I like to think that Bach is saying here that this was, for him, his greatest joy in life: making music with those he loved.

This is truly the music of joy.

J.S. Bach, Goldberg Variations

On harpsichord:

Glenn Gould made two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations, one in 1955 at the start of his career and the second in 1981, just before his untimely death. Both are remarkable, but given the choice, I prefer the 1981 version when Gould have fully realized his interpretation of Bach. Both versions are presented here.

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