Yet More Verbiage About The Goldberg Variations

In April, I drifted off course, steadily. I can’t decide if I was the Titanic or the Exxon Valdez. Icebergs massed around me in the gloom of my pleasures. The boat needed a captain, but the captain was tired of giving orders, had had enough, and perhaps not without cause. Now we are here in May, the month immortalized by Schumann:

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The guy next to me in Starbucks, while I write these (and other, even more fatuous) words down in my little black notebook, is writing a love song–yet another in the infinite series, the infinity-plus-oneth love song. I can’t resist spying and make out the phrase “thought of letting you go” amid a misshapen stanza in red pen. He looks up, catches me peeping; for a moment our eyes meet across the crusty whorish tabletop; and I just can’t believe it but with a slow opening of his face he sends at me a brotherly smile, construing me in a glance as a fellow poet. (No, I’m just a wigged-out blogger!) It is not the first discombobulating tender smile I have received this spring.

Step one. Suppose you clear away all the happinesses that you distrust? Step two. Clear away all the unhappinesses that you have come to trust. Get rid of them too, don’t count on your miseries or your titillations. What will be left behind? Perhaps, after you’ve cleaned all that out, you might find in the back of your cupboard something like the theme of the Goldberg Variations. A deeply trustable happiness. A tender, discombobulating–but not discombobulated!–smile with just enough sadness and loss in it to be believable, to be endurable.

When I was an idiot (read: teenager) I used to really rock out on the ending of the Goldberg Theme, just the last bar and a half, and really especially I enjoyed dwelling on the last dissonant F-sharp, making it into a little orgasm of delay.
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I distinctly remember the snort my teacher emitted when I did this. (Conflating detail and essence!) Now, however, I seem to be more or less the same idiot, since this same cadence still calls to me, speaks to me, but it’s seasoned differently–it’s become part of a larger stew. Now I’d put it this way: Bach invests the cadence itself with tremendous consolatory power. (Notice how my rhetoric shifts from youth to age: from orgasm to consolation.) And this is extraordinary because a cadence is an ordinary, obvious thing–like the period at the end of a sentence, from which you don’t expect much meaning. Part of its function is to be taken for granted.

If “cadence” were a word in the dictionary (OK, it is, but you know what I mean), Bach in the Goldberg Theme has found one of its less-often-used meanings; one of the fun ones; and he locates this meaning with the help of the “words” that he uses to lead into it … through their implications … Bach takes us on a little arching journey before the cadence, making it appear to be the unwinding of a long spool of thread-thought. Now, this journey is a Departure from the Theme Proper. The theme (so far) has been a flowery accumulation of ornaments, dotted rhythms, and sudden fillips: something like a dancer, or at least a harpsichordist trying to be a dancer. But then, newly poised, the theme abandons itself, releases itself to a continuous stream of sixteenth notes:
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… and precisely at the climax of that stream, of that moment of release and change, the theme stops. Just at the moment that it suggests continuity–that which might not end–it ends! This paradoxical hinging of the cadence (return) on the back end of the arch (departure) gives a sense of motion and transcendence to the conclusion: it puts wings under earth. The consolation of the necessary made extraordinary. And it is not, of course, just that one time; every variation revisits that element of unwinding, falling back (escaping back, lofting back) into the tonic, rewrites it, refashions it … Every variation! At some point you could just order up some Chinese food, lay back in bed and eat Sesame Chicken and drop bits of gooey rice on your Bärenreiter while you compare just the cadences of all THIRTY variations, notice how delicious they are, fall asleep full and greasy and smiling, and wake up at 3 in the morning in the middle of a dream about MSG. Not that I’ve done that.

In the morning when you wake from your glutamate nightmares you can read all over the webosphere about the various canons in the Goldbergs and analyze them until your eyes water. Go nuts, have fun with that! Each of them is at a different interval, displaying incredible mastery of counterpoint blah blah blah.

Call me crazy, but “incredible mastery of counterpoint” is one of those phrases that just leaves me cold. Let me pursue my own inadequate analogy. Suppose I call friend X, I know when I call him that he will worry about his career; whereas if I call friend Y we will speculate about life on Mars, and make fun of each other; and if I call friend Z it is partly because I am craving her tone of voice, which helps me feel that my apartment is not empty of everyone but myself, my toaster, and my piano. Bach must have felt the intervals were his friends, don’t you think? His best buds. He was closer to understanding them than anyone in history–their possibilities, their limitations, their quirks. Actually, let’s not kid ourselves: It is largely through his understanding of them that we now understand them. And here he is, Bach is explaining to us the circle of his closest friends, introducing us to them … Like a good friend too he is showing us their good sides, but without mythologizing them: they have their “rough spots.” (Knowing the weak spots, the thorny corners of each interval, knowing these deeply, might be one way to define “mastery of counterpoint.”)

Each canon’s a loving portrait, as if Bach is saying “that’s just classic fourth behavior, isn’t it?”, poking you, nudging you, laughing a little bit at the stodginess of the fourth while at the same time loving its dependability for construction, like a Lincoln Log. The Canon at the Second is a great example … Bach lets the second do what it’s naturally inclined to do, to make a chain of expressive dissonances:
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… but then, as if to say, OK that’s a bit obvious, that’s the side of the Second we all already know … when he comes round the bend, he sends in some renegade dissonances:
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B and B-flat, vying; then C and C#, yow! … all of which as if to reveal some hidden perversity in the interval itself, to show some concealed possible corner of the second’s personality … what the Second does when he’s at home alone, when no one’s watching.

Yes, there is some irreverence in each portrait of each interval, which is as it should be. Love and reverence are not synonymous. I have a great deal of reverence and love for irreverence (also, a great deal of impotent irreverence for love?) In part, the mishmash of reverence and irreverence is what really gets me off about the Goldbergs. Throughout the piece, peeking in often like a child, there’s an impish leaping spirit of virtuosity; meanwhile down below–always, always–you find the same sober flowing bass. The bass which makes perfect sense; above it all sorts of madness, finger-play, coruscation, invention.

If you like, the variations have one desire to drift off course, and another to remain on message. (Hence the theme’s powerful confluence of cadence/wandering.) Enough about Bach, back to me: I’m here, in the wunderschönen Monat Mai, recovering from the April’s onset of spring fever, from emotional wanderings, but still savoring meanings of smiles, wondering about things said outside bars at 4 AM … am I back on course? Or is there still more oil slick in my future? Casting about my notebook for clues, I find a few journal entries: “Practiced Bach hungover. Extreme joy.” The next day: “Much more Bach, finding center, strength in RH, the incredible audacity of the cadenzas … rocking out …” The next day: “Bach d minor cadenza, the reiteration, the insistence, a kind of harmonic mania, moving by destabilizing 5th …” Each day some words that are proper and musicological and some that betray an urge to insanity. And then each day the words run out, I can see where I lose patience with them and yet am inspired by them and run to the piano to play.

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22 Comments

  1. Posted May 11, 2009 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Probably my favorite (Bach) piece and while I wrote about it in school and listen to it often, there is more yet to be learned! This is one of the reasons I love it so much: its endless facets. You can just turn it around and around in your hands, staring at it. (Speaking of insanity….)

    Thanks for sharing your insights; they brought yet another new dimension to the work!

  2. Erica
    Posted May 12, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Saw your performance of the Goldberg Variations at Symphony Space last week! A really compelling and lovely performance, which captured a lot of the thoughts you’ve expressed here, too. Now if only you had a recording of them that I could listen to more regularly… *ahem*… (an Ives recording wouldn’t hurt either..).

  3. #634
    Posted May 12, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I can totally relate to “from orgasm to consolation”:) Your Goldberg Variations on May 7 was inspiring. Can you please play it again?:)

  4. Kerry
    Posted May 12, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always enjoyed your performances. I’ve just recently discovered your blog. Having read voraciously through all your archives, I went out and purchased some Ives recordings and added to my Schumann cd collection. Thank you for taking the time from your busy (and glamorous) life to share your insights. It has made me a better audience.
    Wishing you an early very happy birthday…now get thee to a recording studio!

  5. Harold Diamond
    Posted May 12, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Your unabashed personal involvement with the Goldberg’s as I heard it at Symphony Space allowed me to share some of your awe.

    At a lecture in Caramoor last summer on the Goldberg’s the lecturer pointed out that after hearing all the variations of the theme, the theme, upon return, seems like someone you have known a long time. My wife and I eagerly look forward to your performances.

  6. Jonathan
    Posted May 13, 2009 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Jeremy, my Bärenreiter is now covered in gooey rice thanks to you… no really, thank you.

  7. Jeff
    Posted May 14, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Whose beautiful singing is that in the Dichterliebe clip?

  8. Posted May 14, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    I’m glad someone finally asked! It’s Panzéra and Cortot, in my opinion one of the great recordings of all time, and this recording may well be the subject of a relatively imminent blogpost.

  9. Jeff
    Posted May 14, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks! How could I miss the grain of *that* voice? Barthes rolls in his grave, and my post-structuralist credentials crumble into dust . . .

  10. Posted May 15, 2009 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy, “here, here” to folks who are asking you to record the Goldberg Variations. I listened to your performance at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago on May 2. If it’s possible to be “drunk on music,” I absolutely was that night.

    I wanted to listen to your performance again, but since you have yet to record the Goldberg, I turned on my iPod and listened to Murray Perahia’s recording as I walked back home. To make a long story short, I was so entranced by both your performance and Bach that I stumbled on Michigan Avenue and continued listening to Bach as I fell and did not brace myself for the fall. Fortunately, my bones are intact but not my teeth!

    (Thanks for your outstanding explanation of the Ives Sonata. I really do not appreciate Ives, but after you provided context to the piece, I truly appreciated it.)

  11. leslie
    Posted May 21, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    It was so lovely to hear you play at the new Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center. Mendelssohn at 200 gala celebration.

    http://www.chambermusicsociety.org/eventDetail/45/eventDate=2009-05-19

    I never had a chance to greet you Happy Birthday but it was a great present to your audience hearing your rendition of the SONGS W/OUT WORDS. Even if it’s past due, we can still greet celebrants 1 week before and after the actual date. HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JEREMY! W/sold out tickets, dinner and after concert party, it was also your birthday celebration and we showed up. Hope to see more of you at Alice Tully this season or next.

  12. Posted May 25, 2009 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I just learned that you’re coming back to the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH next season with Joshua. I took the husband last time you were there–we knew his work previously but discovered yours then, and linked to the blog immediately thereafter. We’ll definitely be at the performance and are looking forward to hearing you again with much anticipation.

  13. Buddy's mom
    Posted May 27, 2009 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Dear Walt,
    Your variations untethered my spirit. Humanists – you and Bach. At Alice Tully, a man in my row had a stroke and it took a very long time for the poor soul to be picked up by an ambulence (isn’t there a hospital 5 blocks away?). The audience thinned a bit and I got a marvelous seat to hear your glorious 2H!! What a way to go – I hope I’m similarly situated when the time comes.

  14. Posted May 28, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Well, it is possible to find sustained thought and Great Literature on a blog, so thank you for sharing your wisdom on this one.

    I was surprised to find mention of that understated little masterpiece of a film Garcon Stupide and its wonderful use of Rachmaninov in an earlier entry. Best use of known scores in a film? I thought so – I was wanting to write something about that final scene, with that so enigmatic slow movement of the First Symphony playing out at length, and your words touched on it so poetically. So I hope you didn’t mind me quoting you.

    Still haunted by your Visions Fugitives…

  15. Lorraine
    Posted May 30, 2009 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    The ever transendent quality of a smile. The human Arch that bridges time, age, language. Ever enduring bringing happiness,joy and curiosity. A sign of courage when one can endure the unforgiving qualities which life can bestow. If not for such things as friends, Bach, the Mona Lisa…what is existence really about?

  16. Posted June 3, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    HI Jeremy,
    Thanks for another wonderful blog entry. I always enjoy your writing and insights.

    Sooo, I’m going to be attending your Ojai Festival recital and am bringing some piano students, including a talented nine-year old. His favorite piece is the Goldberg (listens to it every night at bedtime, apparently 🙂 ), but he knows nothing about Ives and I’d like to prepare him a bit. Any ideas for good resources? I can’t find much on line about the piece. He was tinkled pink tonight when I told him that sometimes Ives asks the pianist to use a long piece of wood. I think he’ll be disappointed not to see that. But perhaps further delights await?

    Anyway, looking forward very much to hearing you- the Ojai Festival is a marvelous experience and I hope you enjoy yourself.

  17. Robert Scandrett
    Posted June 16, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

    After a full life of college teaching and choral conducting, at age 83 I needed to renew my contact with JSB. I was missing the intense pleasure of preparing the Mass, Passions and cantatas, and although I had not seriously practiced the piano since college I decided to climb Mt. Everest and challenged myself to learn the Goldberg.
    Listening to the Goldberg can never equal the experience of putting this music into fingers, mind and soul. As amazing as the sacred choral music is, it does not give a complete picture of that incredible mind and spirit. And some of the Goldberg is surely sacred. Variation 25 and 15 would be at home in the Mass, and even #3, indulged at a slow tempo is not unlike a cantata duet for two sopranos. But the humor, the robust vitality, practically everything you can think of as being the realm of music, from profound sadness to a sly sense of the showoff virtuoso, is there. I think I know Bach more as a human being than was ever possible without studying this piece.
    I live just a short walk from the Lakeside School in Seattle, and so of course have often heard you play. This unique possibility to hear you as soloist and chamber music partner is one of the special pleasures of this series. Your gifts are abundant, but I have particularly enjoyed the energy and commitment of your ensemble playing. Your last, intense glance at your fellow musicians before yoou begin is symptomatic of what we can expect to hear. I am deeply disappointed that you will not be playing the Goldberg, but perhaps another year? In the meantime, I will enjoy your blogs. Robert Scandrett email [email protected].

  18. Robert Scandrett
    Posted June 22, 2009 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    what does “Your comment is awaiting moderation” mean?

  19. Dale Matt
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Just discovered your blog and am thoroughly enjoying blowing my morning reading thru it. Your comment about holding out that F sharp is so spot on. There’s something about those lingering moments in Bach where one is hit with a certain longing and a desire to hold onto the piece a little more, as if Bach or the performer are sad to see it end. For a similar reason (and this might be too abrupt a switch of genres) one of my favorite Beatles songs is “You Can’t Do That” where, at the end, the final note just hangs in the air.
    Thanks for your blog, it’s great!

  20. Ted Lazarus
    Posted September 1, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Just read this today for the first time. Surely there’s meaning in the way Gould lingers on that F# at the end of the Goldberg Aria in 1955, and the way he actually skips the appoggiatura in the 1981 version, as if foreshadowing his own imminent demise, putting the period on his life sentence.

    LOVE your blog.

  21. Posted September 22, 2010 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Its hard to find good literature these days with blogs coming at you from everywhere I enjoyed reading about your thought and Excellent literature in this blog, so thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

  22. Posted November 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for another wonderful blog entry. I always enjoy reading about Goldberg Variations, you can find a good list on wikipedia.

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