Musings on the ‘Goldbergs’

Bach’s Goldberg Variations represent the summit of the works that Bach selected for publication as his great legacy for the keyboard: the Clavierübung

Purported to have been performed through the night for the insomniac Count Keyserlingk by his young harpsichordist J. G. Goldberg, this piece demonstrates Bach’s quest to achieve the greatest possible freedom (variety of style, tempo, character, mood and expression) within the greatest possible restrictions (repetitive harmonic structure and canonical counterpoint). It celebrates the unlimited potential of creativity and imagination, even when confined to a simple harmonic progression, based on uniform phrase lengths (four eight-measure phrases). The 32 measures of each variation represent in microcosm the larger structure of 32 movements (30 variations, plus the single arias as bookends).

The number 32, represented by the numbers 3 and 2, appear in many other guises: movements in triple and movements in duple metre are in numerical ratio of 3:2. There are 32 pages in the original printed score. Canons (the most mathematical of musical forms), in a sequence of constantly rising intervals, appear at every third variation (variations 3, 6, 9, 12, etc.).

The number 2 is represented by the binary structure of each movement (AA:BB). Each part, perfectly symmetrical and of equal length, consists of two eight-measure phrases, divided into sub-phrases of four measures, which divide further into two measures pairs. Two is also the number of manuals on the harpsichord, designated by Bach as the instrument on which the music is to be performed. His instructions in the score indicate where two manuals should be employed by the player.

The variations cover stylistic ground from 16th-century polyphony to modern Scarlatti-inspired keyboard virtuosity (including hand-crossings, leaps, and double note passages) in every possible mood from dizzying flights of joyful ecstasy to the profoundest depths of despair. The unifying force in the music’s harmonic structure is felt at every moment – grounding,  comforting, and providing a sense of balance – no matter how far afield Bach’s musical landscape extends beyond all conceivable horizons.

DAVID LOUIE