Goldberg Variations

by Kalindi Bellach ©2017


Bach Cello Suite No. 1

“We find a world of emotions and ideas created with only the simplest of materials.” – Lawrence Lesser, cellist

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) composed Six Suites for solo cello during the six years he served as Kapellmeister in Köthen, Germany (1717–1723). In addition to his position as Kapellmeister, he also composed music for the court of Prince Leopold. During these years, Bach concentrated primarily on secular instrumental music – different from what he was composing when he was living in Weimar. In relation to the entirety of Bach’s compositional output, the time he spent at Köthen was among the most productive in terms of instrumental music, and from this period we received his Six Sonatas [and Partitas] for solo violin, the Well-Tempered Clavier (v. 1), and the six Brandenburg Concerti.

Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, passed away in 1720, leaving him with several children to care for. He remarried the next year, to Anna Magdalena Wicke, the daughter of a court trumpet player and an excellent musician in her own right. Anna Magdalena sang soprano in the choir and accepted a position as a copyist, a service she often performed for her husband as well. In fact, most extant copies of his works are in her hand and marked with her signature.

Unlike many composers of the Classical, Romantic, and even twentieth-century) periods, Bach left very little explanation of his works or his thoughts on music and his contemporary musicians behind. What little we do have is speaks chiefly of the pedagogical aspects of his work. For example, his Well-Tempered Clavier included a page explaining its use for clavier students who wished to become fluent in all twenty-four keys along with something similar for professionals who wished to “brush up.”

As evidenced by his devotion to teaching and the complexity of his scores, Bach approached music as both an intellectual and an artistic challenge. This accounts, at least in part, for his attraction to writing solo works; the solo instrumental genre was not particularly popular at the time. Bach’s interest in the theory and construction of music is very much evident in the cello suites. In his biography on Bach, Johann Nikolaus Forkel writes: “How far Bach’s meditation and penetration in the treatment of melody and harmony was carried, how much he was inclined to exhaust all the possibilities of both, appears furthermore from his attempt to contrive a single melody in such a manner that no second singable part could be set against it. At that time it was an established rule that every union of parts must make a whole and exhaust all the notes necessary to [be] the most complete expression of the contents, so that no deficiency should anywhere be sensible by which another part might be rendered possible.” Before Bach, no one had been able to accomplish this with only a single voice.

Still, we can’t take this idea or Bach’s accomplishment of it completely literally. Bach himself made several arrangements of the Cello Suites which included more stops (pitches performed simultaneously), as in the edition for lute. There are also versions for various stringed and bowed instruments with piano accompaniment. However, thinking of the Suites as akin to etudes – that is, both compositional and performative – distinctly impacts how we choose to interpret them.

By his death, Bach had left very little in writing behind. This fact and the shifting musical ideals of the time caused his work to lose popularity in the second half of the eighteenth century, and the Cello Suites were forgotten. He gained back a certain amount of acclaim during the nineteenth century through the promotion of Felix Mendelssohn. However, Mendelssohn glossed over most of the solo instrumental works. Although the Cello Suites were printed as early as 1825, they seldom appeared on concert programs. Occasionally single movements would be performed, but it was not the practice to perform an entire suite as it is today.

It was not until the early twentieth century that the suites began to be taken more seriously as legitimate solo repertoire and moving out of the etude category, with cellist Pablo Casals (1876–1973) responsible for that shift. After finding a copy of the Suites in a little music shop in Barcelona when he was a young student, Casals was thrilled. He labored over the Suites for the next twelve years, finally performing one in its entirety when he was twenty-five years old. Casals was determined that the Suites be taken seriously as works of art. “To Casals,” writes author Amedee Daryl Williams, “they mirrored the very heart and soul of Bach’s creativity.”

Unfortunately, no manuscript copy in Bach’s hand survives. This means that there is no performance practice we can say definitively was supported by the composer, and this has given rise to sometimes heated (and unending!) debates on how the Suites should be performed. A common saying among performers and teachers of the Suites is ‘There are as many interpretations of Bach as there are people in the world.” Musicologist Maurice Riley writes, “Inasmuch as Bach left no dynamic markings, bowings, or tempo indications, these Suites have been a challenge to each successive editor to supply directions and fingerings that will aid the performer in achieving the Baroque style … there are now many editions available … often with conflicting … markings. Artist performers and musicologists have written numerous articles on performance practices for these transcendent works … there is often disagreement, and the reader may be left more confused than informed.”

While Bach was writing the Cello Suites, Germany was still recovering from the Thirty Years’ War, a period of reconstruction that extended beyond Bach’s life. This reconstruction included the integration of French cultural elements into German cultural expressions. Bach would definitely have been aware of these elements, and almost all of his dance music is based on the French tradition begun by dancers at the court of King Louis XIV in the second half of the seventeenth century. This style, which would later develop into ballet, was graceful, balanced, refined, and highly disciplined.

The term suite traces back to the French suivez, which means “to follow.” Beginning in the second half of the Renaissance and continuing through the Baroque period, a suite was a collection of dance movements. Gradually, these dance movements evolved from having a direct relationship to particular dances into short instrumental concert pieces that loosely followed the same forms. These forms were further developed and then formalized in the early Renaissance period.

Another characteristic of Renaissance music that found its way into Bach’s Cello Suites is its connection to oration. In the Suites you can see the influence mostly in the structure of his phrases, which are constructed with a musical syntax and grammar that resembles how a language is constructed.

Baroque suites traditionally include an allemande, courante, sarabande, and gigue. However, it was not uncommon to include other movements. In his Cello Suites, Bach augmented the traditional suite by including a prelude and what was thought of at the time as an “optional movement” – for example, a gavotte or a minuet or a bourrée. One of these optional movements was inserted between the sarabande and the gigue in each suite, giving each of Bach’s suites a total of six movements.

The primary purpose of the Prelude was to introduce the material presented later in the suite – literally to “play before” the rest. The Preludes are not dance movements, so Bach was freer to improvise with rhythm and structure. Music writer Eric Siblin supports this idea: “The first measures unfold with the storytelling power of a master improviser.” In fact, the term prelude – praludieren, in German – also functions as a verb that means “to improvise.”

The Prelude from the first suite follows a fairly basic arc. Proportion was very important to Bach, and he often used the golden ratio in structuring his music. His preludes are good examples of this.

The remaining movements are less complex, although they each display unique elements. The allemande is a slightly slower, contemplative German dance (allemande is French for “German”). The allemande is an example of binary form, with two roughly equal sections that are each repeated. Bach wrote it in a slow quadruple (or duple) meter, and began with an anacrusis – like the preparatory plié in ballet – into the opening chord. Each section ends with a short, often one-bar, post-cadential figure and features dotted rhythms. Bach’s allemandes are usually more closely related to the preludes than any other movement, and the allemande in this first suite is no exception.

The next movement is the faster courante – “running” in French. Although the notes move quickly, the beat of the dance is not hurried. Rather, a courante was a “noble, grand, hopeful, and earnest” dance. Like the allemande, it has a binary form, and each section is preceded by an anacrusis. Courantes can also feature hemiola – rhythmic emphasis on the weak beats.

Sarabandes are traditionally slower. The dance’s origin is not certain. The earliest references connect it to dances from Spain and Latin America that would have accompanied singing and an instrumental performance. Musicologists Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne describe the sarabande as a “colorful, tempestuous, exotic dance … its opponents called the sarabande ‘lascivious’ and wrote tracts against it.” They go on to explain that the French “tamed” the sarabande, molding it into something seemingly “calm, serious, and sometimes tender, but ordered, balanced, and sustained.” Gradually, the sarabande lost its connection to dance form and become simply an instrumental performance. Bach’s sarabandes are characterized by a slower tempo, with emphasis placed on the second beat of the triple meter.

The “optional” minuets were written in pairs and are quite joyful. The minuet is a rural French dance that was later adopted for court performance. In Bach’s Suites, each minuet is repeated, forming a double binary form, and is followed by a da capo – a final repeat “from the top.” Rhythmically, these are the least complex of all the movements. German composer Johann Matheson describes them as projecting a characteristic “contentment, pleasantness.” Little and Jenne, in discussing the bourrées (and this is applicable to the minuets as well), add that while these movements do not “expose the depths of a composer’s soul … they do express a genuine, aristocratic joie de vivre.

Like the sarabande, the gigue has several possible sources. Most likely the dance came from the jig of the British Isles, but it could also come from the French – the verb giguer means “to dance” – or from the German word Geige, “violin.” French gigues are often characterized by syncopation and hemiola – that is, by playful or unexpected rhythmic emphases. Bach’s gigues are written in compound duple meter, with two large beats per bar, each of which contains three quick beats; the gigue was adopted by the French court in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Bach’s Cello Suites are dear to so many musicians and music lovers that they border on the sacred – and therefore three hundred years later there is still so much controversy about how they should be performed. Musicologists Valery Lloyd-Watts and Carole L. Bigler, “During the Baroque era, all art was concerned with its power to arouse and affect a person’s emotional response…. It was the composer’s responsibility to write the appropriate patterns of rhythm and harmony [according to the theory of affects or Affectenlehre] into the music and the performer’s responsibility to interpret each affect or emotion so that the listener would immediately experience the desired reaction.” It’s safe to say that Bach fulfilled this mandate – some say too well! Instead of viewing the overabundance of varying (and conflicting) ideals as limiting, I want to appreciate it as enriching both to performance practice and our culture in general. After all, the Suites originally hail from a small town in Germany, and now performers all over the world have taken them into their hearts, making the Suites a global phenomenon that is simultaneously communal and highly personal. As Italian cellist Mario Brunello said, “Bach’s music comes closest to the absolute and to perfection.”


Bach Goldberg Variations

“There is something in it of Divinity more than the eare discovers.” – Sir Thomas Browne, Religio medici

Among all of Bach’s works, his compositions for keyboard have been consistently cherished. The Clavier-Übung (“keyboard practice”) series in particular, of which the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) are a part, has been continually studied and performed since they were written.

The genesis of the work is, as musicologist Yo Tomita puts it, “surrounded by mysteries.” Bach historian Johann Nikolaus Forkel tells us that Count Keyserlingk, a Russian ambassador to Dresden, commissioned the set of variations to help with his insomnia. Reportedly, he wanted Bach to write something that his manservant could play for him – something of “a character so gentle and somewhat merry that he could be a little cheered” – when he was awake at night. His manservant’s name? Goldberg. However, recent scholarship has cast doubt on Forkel’s sources for this information, and the score is not marked for the count in any known copy, so we don’t know for sure.

Bach composed his Goldberg Variations between 1739 and 1742, intending them to serve both as etudes and performance pieces. There is some discussion amongst musicologists on the relationship between the Goldberg Variations and some of Bach’s other instrumental work. For example, musicologist Peter Williams explains that “looking at these three pieces now [Goldberg Variations, Chaconne in D minor for violin, and Passacaglia in C minor for organ], we can recognize them as presenting three commanding conceptions of variation form, unmatched as a group in the work of any other composer, each totally different in strategy and tactics, but all of them obviously aiming to wrest harmonic variety and create substantial works by deferring to (not merely decorating) a pattern of chords.”

Originally titled An Aria with Diverse Variations, the Goldberg Variations present thirty musical essays not just on the harmonic material of the Aria but on the language of music as Bach heard it. Like the Cello Suites, Bach’s keyboard works have strong elements of oration in the phrasing. As Williams notes, “The use of rhetorical devices or ‘figures’ in speech and poetry is analogous to the use of certain devices in music, leading to the theory of musical rhetoric.” Also like the Cello Suites, the Goldberg Variations display elements from both French and Italian styles. For example, the opening aria shows its French influence in its ornaments, which hint at the French galant style.

Bach was a master of patterns, and his Goldberg Variations is full of examples of his mastery. Williams notes, “We have here a [set of] variations or varied treatments not of a melody but of a series of chords, which are explored in a series of discrete genres and according to a uniquely ingenious plan.” This points toward the idea of perceptual and conceptual shape, or various patterns that are based on different criteria overlaying one another. In this case, the perceptual shape (easily perceived when listening) can be noticed in the contrasts between movements and their points of climax and semi-climax. Conceptually (referring to the patterns present in the score) the pattern is not necessarily apparent to the listener. The thirty variations can be broken down into ten groups of three, each group following the same pattern: dance/genre piece, arabesque (usually making use of both manuals on the harpsichord), and canon. These groups form little arches, with the largest movement in the middle of each. It is also possible to read a pattern of duples in the Goldberg Variations: each movement is structured in exact halves, with two-bar phrase structures, using two manuals, thirty-two pieces in all (which can be broken down evenly), etc. This equal structure in a binary form was not common, as binary movements were usually skewed to include a more developed second half.

The opening aria, upon which the Goldberg Variations are all based is, according to musicologists Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, “possibly the most poignant and lyrical of Bach’s pieces in sarabande rhythm, and, in fact … easily serves as a textbook model for the sarabande.” Williams adds that the melody, “particularly as it begins, is an exquisite example for the claim that all beautiful melody has a tinge of sadness or … transports us to a world of imagination always inclined by its transience towards melancholy.” American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick said of the work: “I think myself that it ‘feels special’ because, whatever antecedent this or that feature has, its beauty is both original – seldom like anything else, even in Bach – and at the same time comprehensible, intelligible, coherent, based on simple, ‘truthful’ harmonies … the Goldberg has its own language, but one made from standard vocabulary.”

The Goldberg Variations is perhaps one of the best examples of Bach’s work. In it, as Williams explains, you can see in this work Bach’s “highly systematic approach to composition, actively exploring various styles and compositional techniques, both new and old, within a large but tightly constructed structural boundary, as if to create a unique microcosm in each work.” And yet, all technical elements aside, “what the Goldberg really brings to the listener is a world of experience otherwise unknown, and I am not sure anyone can succeed in describing that world to others.”

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