Milan, Via dell’Unione.
When making small talk, the following guidelines can be useful:
(1) Not everyone shares your passions,
(2) “T.M.I.” is a real and present danger.
A few weeks back, a fellow writer recounted a brief stint spent working as a stripper at a bar in rural New Zealand. While initially fascinating, it wasn’t long before the intricate details of sociological details of gender and economics (i.e. male clients’ preferences and sheep-farming) in the island nations failed to hold my attention. Despite my best efforts to listen, I soon began contemplating what the country’s sheep-to-stripper ratio might be. (Despite some attempts to Google it, I have yet to find out.)
But Karma got her revenge. At a wedding celebration last week, I started to tell a friend about how the second variation of the Goldberg Variations sounds like a canon (even though it isn’t at all), while the canon sounds like a florid variation with no seeming contrapuntal discipline. My ten-minute lecture was going well until I bothered to look up and into my companion’s eyes. Present were the tell-tale signs of a furrowed brow, a vacant smile and vigorous affirmative nods, politely letting me know that I should power the conversation down sooner rather than later. This was no longer chit-chat, but a hostage situation.
And yet I kept talking and I couldn’t stop, as the Goldbergs have started to eat up my entire brain space as well as my capacity for self-awareness, apparently. After all, each of us can easily fantasize that the things we love are intelligible and appealing to those closest to us (in all fairness, Kiwi strippers probably have a wider appeal than the Goldbergs in wider culture). But fantasies of this kind should not be dismissed outright. Rather what should be borne in mind is that the details we perceive as passionate and invested experts might only exist on the conceptual (that is, imperceptible) level for our friends. The trick is not just to tell your friends and colleagues about it and expect them to catch up, but to get them to find the same enthusiasm that you yourself have found.
This has all weighed on my mind as I embark on my third journey with the Goldbergs, this time at the harp bench (having previously played the work on the piano and the harpsichord). As I’ve vascilated between ideas about transcription and as well as faithful adaptation, new questions have arisen in my mind as to what the Goldbergs really “are” and what they can ultimately communicate. After all, one of harp’s limitations is that the work cannot be played at the break-neck tempos normally attempted by pianists. But on the other hand, it can get all the pluckiness of a harpsichord while having the ability to add dynamics as one would on the piano.
With this in mind, matters of architecture and overall shape require a bit of extra thought. It’s become the fad to perform the Goldbergs with a sense of narrative for the benefit of the listener, though the internal form of the work contains conscious and unconscious patterns of form and precedence. We often like to think that Bach has somehow poured all of himself into 31 miniatures, leaving us mere mortals behind not so much with an intellectual exercise or work of art, but a strange autobiographical tombeau composed over a decade before the composer’s death.
But with the revival of period instruments and the growth of musicological inquiry, such ideas have been called into question. For me, no writer has ever summed up the literary and performative tensions inherent in the Goldbergs better than the great scholar Peter Williams.
“One can speak of two shapes for the Goldbergs, a perceptual and a conceptual. Perceptually, the movements proceed by way of great contrast and change, reach several kinds of semi-climax en route, build a crescendo of excitement towards the end, and then die away as the Aria returns and eventually closes the work. Conceptually, however, there is a more static pattern, and one neither easily perceptible nor strictly transient, since it is always there on paper to be grasped. The thirty variations are built up from a series of threes which do not, of themselves, either create or remove tension: some are harder to play than others, but the gentlest might be some of the most intricate from a contrapuntal point of view.”
Williams succinctly (and politely) challenged the mode of understanding which has held the Goldbergs hostage for decades, by separating what’s in the score from what pianists are told they “ought” to play. The only problem perhaps is the manner in which he saw these elements as being mutually exclusive.
“Players could reflect either shape, though hardly both, and the archform might be closer to what such a composer, in the days before standard public recitals, was looking for as an ideal.”
It’s true that the gap between the text and the performance mirrors the gap between the listener and the performer, as the Goldbergs do not constitute some abstract or theoretical tome but are in fact intended for artful execution in real time. But I find myself pondering what it would look like to widen the dialogical space between the listener and the work itself. How might listeners be emboldened to hear those things which are genuinely perceptible without a score, though perhaps require some wider musical context?
For instance, each of the 30 variations contains a specific form or genre from the Baroque (canons, fugues, overtures, passpieds, etc.). But if we compare the Goldbergs to Bach’s suites or partitas, there are forms which are notably absent: dances. There is no allemande, no courante, no gavotte and no bourée (though there is a gigue and a minuet). This is because the theme upon which the Goldbergs is built prohibits the use of of forms that do not begin on the first beat of a bar.
(Dance movements from French Suite no. 6, BWV 817)
The first four varations of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Indeed, if one looks at Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations does not offer a harmonic tabula rasa upon which to somehow write out his life in music. The Aria instead provides a rhythmic with a pair of rhythmic fisticuffs to work with, as each and every section of the Aria begins on the strong beat of a bar.
But what seems an abstract rhythmic aspect of the work is the very element which renders the work’s feeling of hypnosis: no movement starts with some breath or lead-in to the start. Each and every movement begins on the strong downbeat, calmly and quietly unambiguous, like an essay without a single gerund or conditional clause. In this way, listening to the Goldbergs is not about information overload or some sort of sensory fantasia, but rather about the inability to exist in any moment but the present.
The shining exception to the rule is the final Variation (no. 30), given the title Quodiblet by Bach. This one movement, signaling the end of the work, breaks the flow by inserting direct quotations from folksongs. It is here that we do see see a glimpse of Bach’s personal life coming to the fore, though not in a somber manner. Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, once explained the Quodiblet thusly as a reference to Bach family reunions:
“As soon as they were assembled a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment… This kind of improvised harmonizing they called a Quodlibet, and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.”
Bach makes no grand philosophical statement with the Quodlibet, but getting people to snap out of it with two rather inane tunes with seemingly contradicting lyrics: Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (“I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”). Bach breaks the flow not with a grand statement, but with a musical joke. And yet, consdering the pious (translation: slow) manner in which the Quodiblet is often played, one would never get the sense that Bach had a sense of humor, or intended to jolt the Goldberg-flow-zone to a grinding halt. Again, the Quodiblet’s joke is not aurally imperceptible, but both performer and listener have to know to expose it and look out for it.
But to do so would be to break with a fairly rigid tradition which tends to see the Goldbergs with the arc described by Williams: they supposedly build up to Variation 16, die away to 25, and rev up again towards variation 29, as if there’s an internal tale of life, death and resurrection (in 30 movements which bear staggering similitude in harmony and rhythm, no less). To break with tradition would also to be to accept some slower tempi and possibly the idea that this is not the marathon race Glen Gould envisioned (such were his tempi that he would soak his arms in hot water for up to twenty minutes before a performance in order to relax his muscles and avoid injury). To break with tradition would be to accept that the piece isn’t about challenging the pianist, harpsichordist or any other performer. It’s about challenging the listener while artfully guiding them along.
Sat with my score and a pencil, cheap Italian espresso is helping me to keep digging into Bach’s marvelous little varaitions as I battle some jetlag. There are there are days in which I wonder if transcribing the Goldbergs is a fool’s errand considering its historical association with the piano and the harpsichord. But as I settle into the mind-altering trance of the Bach’s quiet insistence in each and every variation, it’s my own thought processes that stick with me rather than the work itself. I can’t help but think this to be intentional on Bach’s part, having taken the time to search out forms and genres which transport the listener into their own thoughts. For me, this the essence of universality of the Goldbergs, that as much as they are a wonder to witness on the page, to listen to them is to take a look inside yourself. Music as much as it has been written for enjoyment, continues in its function as a mediator for human sensibilities. How much more universal might the Goldbergs be if they were recognized as pieces to foster introspection on behalf of the listener, rather than virtuosity at the behest of a pianist?