J.S. Bach: Aria with assorted variations
Total Playing Time: 76:22
Some thoughts about the Goldberg Variations
There is a legend connected to this work. According to the legend, Count Hermann Karl von Kayserling commissioned Bach to compose a set of variations for his court harpsichordist, Johann Theophilius Goldberg, to play for him during his long nights of insomnia.
There are historical facts connecting these people, and the facts are beautiful, as they involve bonds of admiration and devotion between Kayserling and Bach, and bonds of tender friendship between Bach's student, Goldberg, and Kayserling's son Heinrich Christian. As a composer, I am enchanted by the legendary payment that Bach received from Kayserling for this piece: a golden snuff box filled with a thousand Louis d'or.
Alas, the legend is not true. If Bach had been commissioned to compose these variations, he would have dedicated them to Kayserling. As it is, there is no dedication, no commission and no golden snuff box.
I believe that Bach, in a sense, commissioned himself to compose this music. Throughout his life, Bach would take a particular musical form, and compose a work that he intended should stand as the epitome of that form. Examples of this include the St. Matthew Passion, the chaconne for unaccompanied violin, the canonic variations on Vom Himmel Hoch and the Art of the Fugue. These are the statements of a man who knew beyond any doubt that he was the greatest composer alive. Certainly, having to work at St. Thomas Church in Leipsig, where the clergy considered him inferior to Telemann and Graupner, and treated him accordingly, provided further bitter incentive to produce works which no other composer could equal.
In deciding to compose the ultimate set of variations, Bach rejected the standard practice of varying the melody, and chose instead to build each variation over the bass line of the aria he used as a theme. Couperin used the same technique in composing Les Folies françoises, which, psychologically perceptive as it is, is on a much smaller scale than what Bach did.
The aria that Bach used has two distinctions: a perfect bass line, and a joyful radiance so powerful that it infuses the entire work with happiness. It is like choosing for a long adventure a companion whose spirit is so great that even in moments of grief and fear, one knows that all will be well.
Many years ago, after I had performed this work, a woman came out of the audience to greet me. She was beaming with joy while tears ran down her face. Holding my hands tightly and smiling and weeping, she thanked me for the performance, during which, she said, she had been healed. I later learned that a clinical depression which had tormented her for years left her during the recital, and did not return. I always think of this woman when I play this piece, and so she was on my mind on the chilly Sunday afternoon in November when I entered the Trinity College Chapel to play the recital that became this recording.
Bach organized this work into ten sets of three variations. In every triptych except the last, the third variation is a canon, beginning with a canon at the unison, and ending with a canon at the ninth. In every triptych except the first, the second variation is a highly virtuosic display piece which pushes to the limit the technique of writing for crossed hands on two keyboards in the manner of Couperin.
The range of emotions contained in these variations is wide, for example, variation twenty-five is one of Bach's darkest utterances, and is immediately followed by one of his most jubilant.
In the last triptych, the third variation, which ought to be a canon, is instead a quodlibet, a word which translates loosely as: whatever. A quodlibet is a musical form in which two or more popular songs are combined in a way that is comical, and often obscene. The popular songs in Bach's quodlibet are, in English, "It's so long since I've been with you," and, "Cabbage and turnips have driven me away."
Finally, after the coarse humor of the quodlibet, the aria returns, solemn and radiant, like an old friend with whom we have shared a lifetime of hilarity and grief, and from whom we must now part; or so it seemed to me as I left the Chapel and went out into the cold autumn air.
copyright 2000, Robert Edward Smith
Recording of November 12, 1995 recital at Trinity College Chapel, Hartford
Recording Engineer: Len Silberg
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