The “Goldberg” Variations

The Dallas Bach Society
7 May 2016

J.S. Bach – Klavierübung Teil IV: “The Goldberg Variations” BWV 988
James Richman, Harpsichord

About the Program:

The Air with Diverse Variations which make up the fourth and final section of Bach’s encyclopedic Klavierübung are widely conceded to be his ultimate keyboard work. None of his other works exploit the harpsichord so perfectly, and this is one case where the piano fails most thoroughly at providing either the distinctive coloration which is at the heart of the piece, or the technical means for its realization. While the variations are indeed “profound”, complicated, and in general “learned”, as the 18th century would have put it, they are also a work of enormous lyricism and sensual beauty, as well as great playfulness.

The most interesting development in modern times concerning the Bach repertoire is surely the discovery in the early 1970’s of Bach’s own annotated copy of the printed edition of the Goldberg Variations. Appearing in one of three piles of music sold to settle the estate of a music professor in Alsace in the 1930’s, this first edition with its red ink markings was widely known, and sat on the music desk of its owner Prof. Paul Blümenroeder for over forty years before he took it to be rebound. Then a page containing fourteen canons on the Goldberg bass line in an all too familiar hand fell out of the tattered leather binding, and when the red- ink corrections in the printed copy were examined more closely, they too were found to be Bach’s own.

In addition to correcting various wrong notes, Bach clarifies our understanding of the work with his annotations in this copy, which of course became immediately the unique source for the work. He adds Adagio to the famous 25th “Black Pearl” variation, which was no surprise, although the verification of the disputed appogiaturas which smooth out the dramatic jumps in its opening were probably a disappointment to those looking for the equivalent of verismo drama in eighteenth-century keyboard music. The 7th variation is now officially a tempo di giga, and in general there are numerous ornaments which were omitted in the printed version, or perhaps added by Bach later – most striking of all are the appogiaturas in virtually every bar of the 26th variation, which was already so florid that no one today would have ever dreamed of enriching it further.

Finally, it seems that the lovely story related by Spitta about Count Keyserling and his goblet with a hundred louis d’or must suffer serious doubt. Aside from the obvious fact that a printed score would surely have borne a dedication in recognition of such a fabulous commission, we are now faced with the discovery that Goldberg the harpsichordist, who supposedly lulled the count to sleep with this work, was baptized in 1727, which would have made him twelve or thirteen when it was composed and fourteen when it was published. It may be quite true that he played Keyserling to sleep with this music, but it is far more likely to have been in the late 1740’s at the earliest and, sadly, probably from a copy purchased for a very much less princely sum.