Thirteen Ways of Listening to the Goldberg Variations

(Programme Note by Adrian Lenthall)


The Goldbergs are in a way not one set of variations, but three (the free variations, the duets for two keyboards and the canons), shuffled together and dealt out in turn. Of these the canons are the most rigorously structured, and appear with total regularity as every third variation.  (In a canon the melody stated by one ‘voice’ is imitated strictly in another;  the basic effect can be a little like listening to the same radio programme on two radios in adjacent rooms, when one of your radios is a digital set.  Additionally, each of the Goldberg canons in turn increases the pitch interval at which this happens, and in two of them the second voice turns the melody upside-down, so that upward steps or leaps become downward ones, and vice versa.)  One thing that theorists often overlook about canons is that part of the fun may be to hide the canon – ‘it’s there, but can you hear it?’  In any case, more important than following all this with the analytical ear is sensing the hidden order or unity, and the biggest folly of all is to be like the people who ‘know’ that a given work (or composer) is ‘difficult’, and who consequently hear only the difficulty – and often end up merely shunning works which more ‘naïve’ listeners find intriguing and enchanting.



The ‘theme’ of the Goldberg Variations is not the melody of the Aria, but its bass line and harmonies. This is not as uncommon as is sometimes implied, especially in the two centuries or so before the Goldbergs.  It’s roughly the principle that underlies pieces built on a ground bass, such as chaconnes and passacaglias.  But these types of piece proceed continuously, without any break between the variations, and without a change of metre, whereas (with few exceptions) every Goldberg variation begins with a fresh time-signature.  The bass line itself, together with its implied chords and keys, lends much to the beauty of the whole set of variations, and their almost uncanny power to satisfy.  The first quarter had been used by numerous earlier composers (including Bach’s older kinsman, Johann Christoph Bach).  Bach’s much-extended version exhibits a high level of symmetry and organisation, each quarter ending with a ‘rhyming’ termination consisting of a similar approach to a perfect cadence in three keys successively (the first and last are in the home key).  Even listeners unaware of this are very likely to notice the resulting sense of deep control and underlying inevitability in the unfolding of time and musical space, which infuses the atmosphere of the entire piece and leaves an impression that it is saying something not just in time, but about time.



The Aria on whose bass and harmonies the variations are all constructed is a model of balance: two halves each of sixteen bars, consisting of two eight bar phrases with a tendency to subdivide into binary clauses;  and each half is marked to be repeated, not just in the Aria but in every subsequent variation.  It’s often said that this gives the listener (and performer) a second chance, but that’s only a superficial aspect of what musical repeats are about.  More importantly, they have the effect of folding or pleating musical space, and time itself:  outwards-return: outwards-onwards:  homewards-return:  homewards-endwards.  So my own instinct is really that, in that perfect world which the Goldbergs intimate to us, all the repeats would be observed;  but in that world listeners would not be sitting on hard wooden pews, or be subject to any other mundane demands and distractions.  In a perverse way, then, I envy those performers who recorded the Goldberg Variations in the era of LPs on vinyl, where the time available on the disc confirmed a policy then widespread, even in live performance, of omitting all the repeats (which is consequently how many people are used to hearing this piece).  In between these ideal and practical extremes lie potentially endless decisions and compromises;  I make the omission of the repeats an occasional and – I hope – not intrusive exception.



You could think of the Goldberg Variations as the longest short piece in history, and of long pieces the one with the least starting material: a feat of unity within diversity and yet of diversity discovered within unity, and one of the most remarkable structures produced by the human mind.  In its endless variety we hear our own fragmented selves reflected back at us, and in its over-arching oneness we sense the possibility of a kind of healing.



“I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The blackbird whistling

Or just after.”

(Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird)



The form of the piece – thirty variations between two statements of the (thirty-two-bar) Aria, with the same, regular ground-plan in each of these thirty-two workings – does things to Time. A kind of eternal recurrence comes to be audible, and indeed the music seems to put within our grasp the joyful embrace of that recurrence which was for Nietzsche the hallmark of rare super-beings.  And yet, especially in the approach to the conclusion, a sense gathers that circularity is being inexorably replaced by linearity, a sense that time is indeed only and always passing.  Perhaps this is why for so many people the Aria is so different the second time around:  it’s not just that the greeting has become a farewell, but that in the meantime, everything has changed and nothing is quite the same.



The use of a harpsichord with two keyboards is prescribed on the title-page of these variations. They can of course be performed on the piano, and indeed for many music-lovers (as I have been discovering) this is the default option.  On a two-manual harpsichord, the two keyboards work by plucking different sets of strings, and the difference in timbre is achieved mainly by plucking them in a different position along their length, in just the same way as a guitarist can make the tone of their instrument more nasal by plucking close to the end of the string, or more flutey by plucking nearer its middle.  The use of two keyboards heightens the sense of internal dialogue which the canons, and in a different way the repeats, set up.  Like the colon in the middle of each verse of a Psalm, these features infuse the whole with the spacious antiphony of good liturgy.



The story that the Goldbergs were composed to alleviate the insomnia of Count Keyserlingk can certainly be discounted; it would have been unthinkable to omit the name of such an influential patron from the title-page, and moreover the musician Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (who did exist, and was in the Count’s employ) was only thirteen years old when the ‘Goldbergs’ were published – and yet there is no other evidence for any outstanding precocity or virtuosity on his part, qualities without which this story entirely founders.  Nevertheless, great art like these variations does possess the quality of coming from the sleeping mind at least as much as the waking:  it has the strange inevitability of dozing thoughts or of dreams proper.



So the word ‘Goldberg’ appears nowhere in the original publication of 1741; instead, the original work is headed ‘Keyboard Practice (Clavier Ubung), consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with 2 manuals, composed for music-lovers, to refresh their spirits’.  For this reason the variations have often been referred to, especially on the Continent, as ‘Part IV of the Clavierübung’, since Bach had already published (and numbered) three other ‘parts’ of his Clavierübung:  the six Partitas, the Italian Concerto plus the French Overture, and a set of chorale preludes for organ, framed by a large prelude and fugue and also including four ‘duets’.  The series as a whole exhibits the same high level of structuring as the Goldberg Variations:  the first part is for (single) keyboard, the second for harpsichord with two manuals, and the third requires two manuals and a pedal keyboard.  Moreover all three parts contain, at the half-way point, an Overture in the French style – just like the sixteenth of the Goldbergs.



It’s possible to approach the Goldberg Variations as a puzzle to be solved or a challenge to be surmounted. But works like these are not given so that we may cleverly ‘get them right’.  They point away from, not towards, our own egos (as listeners and – let it be said! – performers), indeed away from, not towards, themselves:  they are not Golden Calves – or how could they be so life-giving?  They dissolve themselves in the ocean of their own possibilities and point to that endlessness which may surround even that.  Perhaps this is another reason why the ending, with its humour and lightness (culminating in the ‘Quodlibet’, a convivial working-together of popular melodies such as the Bach family and guests would improvise for mutual entertainment), followed by the return to the opening Aria, has so often been felt to be so poignant, so transcendently sad, as the dissolution itself finally dissolves.



There are few universals in musical aesthetics – ideas which hold true of all eras and cultures – but if one such thing can be hazarded, it might be that it is the purpose of music to move the emotions. (J.S. Bach’s greatest pupil, his own son Emanuel – who insisted that he had no teacher other than his father – was clear in decrying virtuosic performance that failed to touch listeners’ sensibilities:  for him, conveying the true emotional content of music was as important as playing the right notes.)  So it is entirely valid to respond to music with one’s emotions as well as, or indeed more than, with one’s intellect;  in fact this is probably what predominates in the listening experience of most music-lovers.



Despite the formidable reputation of the Goldbergs it is, for me, the category of play which best captures their essence. Without any doubt they are a great work, and both the quality and the quantity of the work within them are huge;  but this is worn extremely lightly.  There is an achieved effortlessness, if that’s not too paradoxical, which almost seems to hark back to a mythic state before the Fall, that is before toil drove a wedge between being and doing, and all was freedom and play and discovery.  The co-existence of this joyful play with certain variations which seem to touch a nerve of deepest pathos, and even to hint at tragedy, is an integration of opposites which holds before us a deeply compelling and attractive image of wholeness, as if the entire world – time, eternity and all – were held for a moment in a nutshell.



In my beginning is my end.

                                        T.S. Eliot, East Coker

 En ma fin git mon commencement.

                                        Mary I of Scotland

What joy what grief on man Time’s heavy hand doth lay.

        Ivor Gurney, George Chapman – The Iliad


Uroboros: the dragon devouring its tail, eternally renewing itself, and symbolising the unity of all things (“The All is One”).