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.