The Goldberg Variations is often displayed as an
unsurpassed model for contrapuntal composition.
J.S. BACH (1685-1750) Goldberg Variations BWV 988
While the perfection of the canons is often emphasized by music
theorists, the most important aspect of the work, in my mind, is the
Those variations are the "Etudes d'éxecution transcendantale" of their
time. They expand and raise the harpsichord virtuosity to levels never
In this work, J.S. Bach has written the most fantastic and outrageous
keyboard idioms of his time and he has pushed existing ones to their
Visionary hand choreographies (Var.5, 20, 26), double thirds and sixths
(Var.23) double trills (Var. 28), alternating chords (Var.29) and many
other keyboard acrobatics make
this work one of the greatest instrumental achievements of musical
history together with the above-mentioned studies by Liszt, the
"Gaspard de la Nuit" or the "Three Movements from Petrouchka".
The contrapuntal music writing styles (fugues and canons) have acquired
an aura of seriousness and almost religiousness during the romantic
epoch. After having been forgotten
for a century or so, when J. S. Bach was "discovered" by Mendelssohn,
he was seen as the musician par-excellence for the salvation of
romantically tormented souls.
The prominence of J.S. Bach's church-commissioned works overshadowed
his profane and purely instrumental works. In all his compositions, it
has been a "tradition" to seek the Divine Signs and connections to the
This so called tradition led to such insanities as the "research" of
divine numerology in his fugues, the "discovery" of the Holy Trinity
when a voice jumps a step of third and other ridiculous things.
The religious sensibility in his Masses, Cantatas and Passions has been
extrapolated to all his other works.
Religion, for J. S. Bach, was a "normal" and "natural" part of his
life. He was not just employed by religious authority, but he was a man
who deeply and sincerely practiced Lutheranism.
Yet he was a true composer in the sense that he had the aspirations and
the artistry to compose a variety of music.
Although J. S. Bach never composed operas, probably because no one
hired him to do so and because such works might have offended his
Lutheran community, he was certainly capable of doing so. His operas
might have rivaled those of Haendel and Rameau.
Similarly it is wrong to view Bach's fugues and canons as "pure
intellectual music." The joy is not so much in the analysis of their
forms, but in listening and performing them. After centuries of
homophonic music writing we have forgotten how simply enjoyable are the
musical forms of canons and fugues.
By captivating the mind with an attractive theme and leading it through
contrapuntal mazes, one can "almost easily" achieve, if not good, at
least a decent music. When the Bach family gathered on Christmas
evenings they sang improvised canons to have fun.
I believe that music analysts who stress the perfectionism of the
counterpoint in Bach's canons are missing a point. Today, it is
possible to produce the most complicated counterpoint in less than a
second with a programmed machine. It is a simple matter of following
rules to construct a perfect canon. The genius of J. S. Bach is
revealed in the places where he deviated from the rules.
Every composer knows (even if some would never admit it) that the most
difficult compositions are the "free" ones. A simple melody (an "aria"
for example) can be much more difficult to compose than a 6 voice
fugue. This is why I find that the free variations (Var.1, 2, 4, 5, 7,
8, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17, 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, 28, 29) reveal more of the
composer's genius. Still more striking examples are the Aria and
variations 13 and 25.
It is also worth noting how those slow variations, number 13 and the
"adagio" number 25 are placed in the whole set. The set is divided into
two main sections: Aria - Variations. 15 and Variations 16 to Aria (da
capo). The numbers 13 and 25, which are the emotional climaxes of the
whole work, are placed in strategically symmetrical positions.
For the framework of the composition Bach chose to include one
interlude and one canon, based on the harmonic framework of the
previously composed aria, because that seemed to him to be the most
entertaining form. There is no shame and should be no fear in using the
word "entertaining" here. In the hands of J. S. Bach, an
entertaining form such as a canon would assuredly turn out to be a
The Goldberg Variations stands high in the history of keyboard music,
alongside the innovative studies of Chopin and Liszt or Igor
Stravinsky's Petrouchka, for its a revolutionary instrumental
accomplishment. Similarly to works like the Studies by Chopin and Liszt
or the Petrouchka Suite by Stravinsky, The Goldberg Variations is one
of this kind of music which extends and revolutionize the instrumental
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