by Rob Haskins
1 In the 1730s, J. S. Bach was involved in several ongoing projects. One of the most important of these was his directorship of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, which was in full swing with concerts that took place at least every week. The ensemble included Bach, his sons, student musicians, and other performing artists in the Bach Circle. Its audiences heard both the most contemporary music (Telemann's Nouveaux Quatuors of 1738 were probably performed there, for instance) as well as such visiting virtuosos as the opera diva Faustina Bordoni (Hasse's wife) and the lutenist Sylvius Leopold Weiss. Certainly Bach's own music also played a prominent role in the Collegium concerts--above all secular cantatas, concertos, sonatas, and solo keyboard music.
2 Around this time, Bach also completed the only major cycle of works that he prepared for publication, the Clavier-Übung ("keyboard practice"). In the four parts of this cycle, Bach presented the most important keyboard music genres of his time--suites (Part I), solo works evoking the style and sound of Italian and French orchestral music (Part II), a large collection of organ music for liturgical use (Part III), and finally the so-called Goldberg Variations (Part IV), which appeared in 1741. Furthermore, the Clavier-Übung comprises a kind of encyclopedia in which we can find musical styles and idioms of the distant past and the impetuous present, both transformed by Bach's compositional gift.
3 Bach's first biographer Forkel tells the famous story that the Goldbergs originated as a commission from Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk (a Dresden dignitary); Keyserlingk, an insomniac, asked Bach for some quiet but somewhat lively pieces that his house harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg could play during sleepless nights. The charming story has problems: Goldberg was only fourteen at the time, perhaps too young to handle all of the work's technical challenges; and the published score lacks a dedication to Keyserlingk. More likely, Bach always intended the Goldbergs as the monumental conclusion of his Clavier-Übung.
4 A complex musical architecture underlies many of Bach's final masterpieces, and the Goldbergs are no exception. First, all thirty variations take as their basis a chaconne-like succession of harmonies in G major (sometimes modified to G minor). Second, the individual movements follow a pattern in which every third variation is a canon for the two uppermost voices (canon is the strictest kind of counterpoint in which the second part or "voice" to enter imitates the first note for note). Finally, there is a clear dramatic design: for example, an imposing French Overture (Variation 16) begins the second half; an extraordinary lament, containing some of the most lonely and harmonically complex music Bach ever wrote, appears a little after three-fourths of the way through (Variation 28); and of course the Aria that begins the variations returns at the end.
5 In particular, the sequence of canons is one of the most stunning examples of Bach's contrapuntal skill. Bach makes his task more difficult by increasing the pitch-interval of canonic imitation systematically--from a unison in Variation 3, to a second in Variation 6, and so on until Variation 27, a canon at the ninth. He also introduces the additional challenge of inverting the canonic voice, so that for instance upward-moving melodies become downward-moving ones when the imitating voice enters (in Variations 12 and 15). And yet the music remains extraordinarily beautiful--the sorrowing Variation 15 is only one example among many.
6 As I mentioned earlier, the Goldberg Variations (like most of the Clavier-Übung) unites the old with the new. Bach gives us examples of fugue (Variations 10 and 22), toccata (Variation 29), gigue (Variation 7), bourrée (Variation 18), a "quodlibet" combining two folksongs beloved to the composer (Variation 30), and an Italian aria (Variation 13). Some movements suggest other genres but are less obvious, for instance the corrente-like Variation 1. Still others--above all the difficult crossed-hand Variations 5, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, and 26--seem to suggest the most progressive keyboard style of the day, Domenico Scarlatti's Essercizi (published in 1738). We do not know whether or not Bach ever saw the Essercizi, but it certainly would not be surprising given Bach's interest in the latest music as part of his Collegium Musicum duties.
7 No matter what the musical models for the Goldbergs were, it seems obvious that Bach intended his variations to demonstrate, in part, his fluency with the latest music. In particular, we can hear immediately the effect of the Goldbergs' regular eight-measure phrases and slow harmonic rhythm, both hallmarks of "pre-classic" music. Indeed, Bach sometimes underscores these phrase articulations by altering the keyboard figuration (as in Variations 8 and 14), another technique that Classical composers used to give their music expressive depth. Yet Bach always stops short of the transparent, "natural" textures of pre-Classic music. His musical ideal, the full-textured polyphony of the Baroque, was the one that he himself brought to its apex; with it, he created an unparalleled unity between the intellectual and the sensual.