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.
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.
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?