Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations

Bach supposedly wrote these 30 variations on a simple theme for the insomniacal Count Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the kingdom of Saxony. Musical scholars agree they represent the pinnacle of baroque keyboard technique. Their name became associated with the count’s harpsichordist, Johann Goldberg, who was only 14 when they were written. Keyserlingk was so pleased with the work that he gave Bach a goblet filled with 100 Louis D’Or.

I will leave it to others to analyze the music, for example this page is devoted to the nine canons in the variations. In addition to canons, Bach also took the melody and turned it into fugues, arias, French overtures and a quodlibet. These variations are known for being killers–one for example requires the pianist to play with both hands crossed all the way through. They are intricate and meticulously crafted, and though Bach wrote few variations on themes, these are considered the text book examples of how to do so.

A couple of years ago, I was in the lobby of a Holiday Inn in Accra, Ghana, when someone started playing the Goldberg Variations baby grand piano in the small lobby next to the bar.  It blew me away, of course, to hear it in such an unexpected place, but even more of a treat was being able to sit almost beside the pianist and watch him play.   It turns out he was just the accompaniast for an American soprano who was performing that night.

I first heard the piece, when I was living in the French House of Indiana University, in 1975.

There was an irony to living at the French House–few people living there actually made a point of speaking French. It took too much effort and no one really policed us. A native French resident assistant (RA) did live there both of my years there, but he didn’t have the time to go snooping in on every conversation. During the first year, when the RA, Olivier, did try to get the other members of my clique to speak French, they would do so with the most hideously American accent, and that would shut him up.

Once a week, the French Department would encourage other native speakers and students to come to our cafeteria and sit at the French table, and that was more rigorous. Or they would organize lectures and slide shows in the lounge of our dorm. It was still intimidating to me, who’d never been abroad, and who’d only been lectured to in a kind of academic French, which as different from spoken French as Dickens is to American rap vernacular.

There was a guy in my dorm who was nearly bi-lingual, and I once witnessed Olivier correct him when he made an almost imperceptible pronunciation mistake. It wasn’t like it prevented him from understanding the message, it was sheer one-upsmanship and linguistic (and even cultural) chauvinism. You see, no French person can bear to hear anyone butcher his language.

If you want to learn to speak a langauge, one of the worst ways to go about it is to study it in college. The best way is to have a love affair with a native speaker. The second best way is to go to the country. In university, they usually start with grammar, which is unfortunate, since language changes more rapidly than compilers of grammar books and dictionaries can keep up with. Psycholinguists have shown that learning a language requires mastering a complex blend of psycho-motor, cognitive, and conceptual skills some of which atrophy by the time we get into our late teens. We can learn a second language as an adult, but rarely well enough to be taken as a native speaker, and it takes a long time.

The reason I bring this up is that–despite this psychological fact–years ago when I was learning French, native speakers would not cut you any slack at all when trying to learn their language. To the credit of the French educational system, school children in France are taught to revere their language and use it effectively and efficiently both orally and in writing. Every year, the French newspaper,  Le Monde, publishes what is considered to be the best final essay which every high school student must pass in order to matriculate to college. Some of these read like philosophical tracts.

Being shy, that pretty much sucked all the enthusiasm out of my trying to speak French, and I didn’t learn to do so until after graduate school, when I went to Algeria to teach English. Algeria, being a former French colony, had a bilingual population, and being Muslims, prided themselves on being good hosts. They would never correct you, and so there I became comfortable enough to loosen my tongue and made more progress there in 6 months than I had in four years of university study.

This might make it sound like I have something against the French. One thing everybody has to learn is to rely on themselves–their inherent worth–despite how other people react. That was something that I learned only 20 years later and forget from time to time. Other people were much thicker skinned than I was back in the 1970s and learned to speak French.

The French Resident Assistant, who moved into the French House in the fall of 1975, ended up becoming one of my better friends and I still keep in touch, looking him up whenever I am in Paris, where he now lives. His name is Jean-Marc Fernandez, and perhaps we became friends because he actually grew up in Algeria, coming to France after his father was killed there during the revolution in 1962.

Like so many French, Jean-Marc had a lust for all facets of life–the intellectual as well as the artistic. He had come to Indiana University to work on a PHd in political science and business. He spoke Spanish and could hold his own in German and Russian. JM had done his masters degree in American literature and was better-read than I was in the authors of my own country. He also loved film and classical music, preferring, of course, French composers.

The first day he moved into the French, he was surprised to see that an old friend of his, Rosemary Bourgault had moved into a room on the girl’s floor. They immediately became an item and eventually married. But again, he had eclectic tastes and I believe I heard today’s piece, Bach’s Goldberg Variations in his room. It was around that time period that someone had made a film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse Five which used some of the pieces from the Variations in the sound track. Jean-Marc liked the movie and I think had a copy of the recording.

Glenn Gould seems to be the foremost interpreter of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and I recently heard this 1955 recording he made.

It’s in mono, but I like the youthful interpretation.  Compare it to the earlier version and tell me if you prefer one to the other.

Buy CD or download MP3 of Bach: Goldberg Variations

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

12 Responses to Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations

  1. I haven’t had the chance to hear them both but I am told that it’s an interesting contrast to hear the younger and older Gould versions of the Variations. Have you had the chance to compare them?


    • kurtnemes says:

      I’ve put youtube links to both in this post. You can also find all of them on youtube. I haven’t systematically compared them, but on a quick hearing, both seem technically perfect. The 1955 is a little sprightlier and the 1981 is more emotionally deep.


  2. kvennarad says:

    And yet the French loved to hear Josephine Baker sing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. kvennarad says:

    By the way, this was such a wonderfully gentle way to be woken up today.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carl says:

    The newest Gould is too stuffy, muted, uninvolved. Plus, there are loads of missed notes with the newest one. I love the old Gould, but I have found while listening to others that Gould was probably too acrobatic for the style with his first recording.

    Gould’s humming is legendary. It doesn’t interfere too much, and it seems to remind one how he is trying to make an inadequate instrument sing beautifully.

    I always feel sad when the aria returns at the end because it signals the end of a beautiful world.


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks for your comment Carl. Didn’t Casals used to hum when he was conducting Bach as well. I heard Virgil Fox also was moved in certain ways while playing the organ. What is it with Bach? Gould could be excused for youth, no? Did you know he wrote a string quartet? First I heard of it when doing some research for this post. All the best.


      • Carl says:

        Yes, Casals hummed with the cello suites. I played the double bass and the cello suites were my favorite solo music. They were too difficult for the bass, but I tried. A teacher told me that I had a bad habit of humming when playing the suites, and I hadn’t realized it. I found out that I could not play the suites as beautifully as I thought. Your inner ear attends to the humming and blocks out the defects of the instrumental sound, even though the humming itself is not so pleasant and is often out of tune. That’s why I empathize with Gould. The piano is a percussion instrument after all and the Goldberg Variations is too beautiful for a percussion instrument, but his efforts brought about beautiful recordings.

        Gould was apparently the Howard Hughes of musicians. He didn’t like being around people. He was always sick, though it was mostly imagined. He didn’t shake hands with people because he didn’t want to hurt his hand. He was a real freak apparently. I didn’t know about his composition efforts. He was an excellent prose writer, especially in exploring music.

        Liked by 1 person

      • kurtnemes says:

        Double bass. I dated a woman in college who played one. Amazing instrument. I’m interested that you say Gould’s humming brought a richness to the cold percussive sound of the Goldberg. I guess it was originally written for harpsichord? Which would be plucked? I got to see if I can find a version. Can you point me to some of Gould’s writing? Thanks


      • Carl says:

        In light of our interesting discussion, check out this fascinating piece. Film with Gould’s humming at its worst, but what genius!!!


      • kurtnemes says:

        Amazing. Thanks


      • Carl says:

        Yes, it would have been harpsichord, but they were pretty heavy duty in Bach’s later years, and the harpsichord does have a mechanism that allows a pin to pull and release the string. The piano is simply a hammer hitting the string and releasing quickly, so it is difficult to understand how Gould would shape the sound so beautifully. I think the Goldberg is beautiful but the piano can be cold and percussive especially with the wrong person playing Bach.

        I would suggest The Glenn Gould Reader as edited by Tim Page because it’s a good collection. I think it even has an interview Gould gave himself. I remember he wrote the liner notes on a couple pieces of vinyl I had, and that is extremely rare in those times to have the musician to write the liner notes, but they were the most fascinating notes. From his writing, I think he loved Beethoven most of all and he may have preferred to have been known for his Beethoven. I heard some of his Beethoven concerts were the best Beethoven one could possibly hear….

        Liked by 1 person

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