I’ve been learning Bach’s Goldberg Variations recently. I know that sounds absurd. It’s the piano music Glenn Gould dazzled the music world with in 1955 and it’s famous for its technical and interpretive challenges. If you didn’t have the chops or the months or maybe years to commit, you’d have to be nuts to even try.
I’ve sight-read them over the years, learning 4 or 5 to performance level, but thought it would be too much effort to learn them all. Then I thought, well why not? At least I could say I gave it a shot.
Of course, not all the variations are finger-breakers. As well as the evocative aria and final recapitulation, there are quite a few simple, relatively non-contrapuntal bits that let you focus for a while on interpretation rather than technique.
The difficulties arise from the fact that Bach wrote them not for the piano — which had only just been invented — but for the two-manual harpsichord. In fact he identifies which variations should be played on one keyboard and which on two.
The ones played on two have parts where the hands overlap. The right hand, normally playing alone at the top of the keyboard, suddenly heads south towards the bass clef and the left hand, normally playing alone on the other keyboard, heads north. It’s not a problem when you’re playing on a two keyboard harpsichord. But on the single keyboard of the piano the fingers can get hopelessly entangled. It’s a bit like ten people all playing hopscotch on the same patch of sidewalk at the same time. They have to land on a different square one after the other in perfect synchronicity.
This bit of fingered choreography requires a huge amount of practice and decisions have to be made about whether right should go over left or vice versa. Be assured, if you’ve heard a performance of the Goldbergs played well, the pianist had to play certain bars in the fast movements thousands of times to get them right.
One of the reasons I love them is because they were sort of Bach’s neglected step-child. They lay gathering dust for a couple of centuries, relegated to a pedagogic limbo. Then along came Gould who discovered there was gold buried in them thar Goldbergs. He dug out the nuggets, then hammered and burnished them into a string of glowing pendants.
To me they’re a microcosm of Bach’s biography. Neglected after his death, it wasn’t until the young Mendelsohn conducted a performance of the St. Matthew Passion that musicians started to take him seriously. Since then, and certainly at this moment, there isn’t a single second where Bach isn’t being performed somewhere in the world.
Part of this is a result of his almost incomprensibly huge output. Hänssler Classics put out a collection of CD’s a few years ago of his complete works — 155 disks. If you do the math it means if you put the first disk in your player on a Sunday and play them one after the other, you wouldn’t take out the last one until the following Sunday. And the amazing thing is that nearly every minute of it is worth hearing. Much of it is truly great music.
The other daunting aspect of this is that Bach probably wrote the Goldbergs in less time than it’s going to take me (or anyone else) to learn to play them.
I’d better get busy.