Yesterday was a beautiful day. After a week of rain and fog, the sun was out and bathing everything in a golden light. As I drove home, a birch at the roadside caught my eye. The leaves were glittering in the sun, forming a delicate contrast with the tree and the blue sky. A little aesthetic every day miracle – enough to make me feel comfortable and serene. I was listening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, BWV 988. This added to my bliss. What a beautiful day. Sure, I was busy, but nevertheless I found peace in the sight of those golden leaves and this heavenly music.
Sleep disorder therapy
Apparently the “Goldberg Variations” were meant to have a therapeutic effect right from the beginning. According to the account of a contemporary of Bach, the composer wrote this piece in 1742 upon a commission of Count Hermann Carl von Keyserling, a former Russian diplomat. The count had sleep disorders and his personal pianist, the 14-year-old Johann T. Goldberg, was on stand-by each night to play to his master whenever von Keyserling could not sleep. Legend has it that the count asked Bach to compose sweet and cheerful keyboard pieces to help him through the night.
Though Bach had harboured misgivings about variations of one single theme in the past, he wrote a sarabande with 30 variations. The printed edition hoes not mention von Keyserling anywhere, nor does it say anything about Goldberg. It is therefore much likelier that the piece was intended as training material for music students. The “Goldberg Variations” are part of a compendium of four volumes of “Clavier-Übungen” (Keyboard Exercises) that Bach published between 1731 and 1741.
Canons and counterpoint
However, this work marks the culmination of Bach’s keyboard compositions. It is highly entertaining and at the same time carefully constructed as one would expect. The main theme, 32 bars, is identical with the bass of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Chaconne with 62 Variations, written by Bach famous contemporary between 1703 and 1706. Every third variation is a canon with two melodic lines. The other pieces imitate the old polyphonic vocal music and give the player a chance to show his virtuosity, be it a modern-day pianist or a Baroque cembalist. Bach uses counterpoint* in both the canonic and non-canonic pieces that some musicologist interpret as a way to teach the difference between the two types of counterpoint.
Bach or his editor specified in the title it was to be performed on the clavicymbalum, an early version of the harpsichord. I have a beautiful recording of the “Goldberg Variations” performed by the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett on the harpsichord. A true delight! And then I have a recording of the piece performed on a modern grand piano by Andrei Gavrilov. The two albums are worlds apart. I definitely prefer the harpsichord version, however I am told that there are people abhorring the specific sound of that instrument. Unbelievable! But Gavrilov certainly does a fine job, and the piano makes Bach’s music a little more accessible for the general audience.
If you feel a little dispirited on a grey and wet autumn day, have a little Bach. Performed by a jazz pianist it is an excellent antidote against the blues.
© Charles Thibo