The Goldberg Variations

You could see the sun radiating off the pavement of the Interstate as you looked ahead at the endless line of stopped cars. The refracting light made the stationary cars appear to dance in the distance, almost as if taunting you. Was it all simply a mirage or was it really going to take two hours to get home after work? Seemingly out of nowhere my rearview mirror began to vibrate; the trunk of the car to my left was rattling to the bass line of a rap song. I turned to see the driver merrily rocking his head to the beat. Our love of music both bound and separated us. Though we shared a common passion I couldn’t help but feel as if we inhabited opposite edges of the universe. Every moment traffic remained stopped my resentment for having music forced upon me grew – until it boiled over. I lowered my windows, clicked on the CD player and rotated the volume dial with reckless abandon. I’m almost certain you could hear variation four of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations from outer space that day.

Though I couldn't articulate why at the time, I knew Bach’s Goldberg Variations were something special ever since I first heard them as a child. As I have gained knowledge of music theory and experience as a pianist, my affinity and appreciation for the Goldbergs has only grown. The Goldberg Variations are a 90-minute lecture on advanced mathematics in composition, and almost all 90 minutes are in a single key – G major. There are only three minor key variations spaced throughout the piece to break the otherwise unyielding uniformity. It’s a foolproof recipe for failure and monotony, but through his genius Bach managed to create an engaging masterpiece. The piece itself is based off a simple bass line progressing from G to D, and the structure is about as classically straight-laced as they come. Every variation is symmetrical with 32 measures split into two 16-measure sections. The work itself is split into 32 sections with the aria, 30 variations, and aria da capo. Every third variation is a virtuosic canon, with each one ascending by interval from the unison up to the ninth. While every angle of analysis exposes another sophisticated underlying architecture, not everything with the Goldberg Variations is what it appears.

Despite its perfectly unassailable structure the music itself possesses an elusive beauty, and is in some way so very imperfectly human. It is this breathtakingly beautiful paradox that makes the piece most compelling. It’s almost as if the piece has a degree of antipathy for its own intellectual purity. It taunts itself with melodies chasing each other up and down the keyboard, unusual harmonic progressions and even a few incorrect notes. The Goldbergs can be playful, wistful, manic, reflective and ultimately nostalgic. The poetry of the human condition always finds its way in, and listeners are swept away on an unexpectedly poignant ride.

The Deceptive Simplicity of Bach

I have a confession to make. As I have started my journey of playing Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations I have been journaling my progress in a small black Moleskine notebook which I affectionately refer to as my book of failed ideas and unrealized dreams. It's actually a three volume set now. Someday, my chef d'œuvre will fill an entire closet only to be thrown into a dumpster upon my demise. Citizen Kane had Rosebud, and I will have my notebooks.

As a pianist, I often can't help but feel as if Johann Sebastian Bach's greatest enduring legacy is creating infuriatingly frustrating music. The assertion is, of course, untrue and completely unfair; however, I have yet to come across a larger body of such deceptively difficult music. It's obvious looking at the score of Franz Liszt's Études d'exécution transcendante that you're about to embark on a monstrously formidable test of virtuosity - the blisteringly fast arpeggios, widely spaced chords and obscene leaps make an imposing statement. Unlike Liszt, Bach takes the pianist on an exhausting mental journey without warning; the immense difficulty is cunningly hidden within an impeccably clean structure.

Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of Bach's playful urge to inflict psyche-shattering indignity on the pianist can be found in Variation 17 of the Goldberg Variations. Never in this variation is the pianist playing more than two notes at once. In fact, the regular pattern in the left hand could be mistaken for a simple exercise. Even an average pianist could sight read the steadily climbing pattern immediately - until it passes clear through the melody of the right hand! The moment the accompaniment overtakes the melody practically causes your brain to melt as it attempts to recompute every preconceived notion it has ever had in that split second. That's completely setting aside the obvious but separate issue of both hands simultaneously attempting to occupy the same space on the keyboard. If your brain was a computer it would certainly throw a fatal system error and shut down in attempt to avoid further system damage.

Goldberg Variations: Variation 17

Goldberg Variations: Variation 17

In Variation 11 Bach repeatedly interleaves a series of descending scales by the interval of a third. Pianists are left no other option but to battle the opposing urges of the left and right hemispheres of the brain; redistributing the notes among the hands to avoid crossing under prevents the voices from being  expressed independently. 

Goldberg Variations: Variation 11

Goldberg Variations: Variation 11

Perhaps I'm just passing through the stages of grief upon the realization that I'm wrestling one of the most difficult keyboard compositions. I've always possessed an unhealthy love/hate relationship with projects I am most passionate about, but I have a hunch that I'm not alone. Couldn't Bach have chosen to write only ten variations? Why did he feel compelled to write thirty?