The finale of our Baroque Festival 2022 will be concluded by the French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau - with no less a work than Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”.
Are all cats grey in the dark? Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations were written to prove the opposite. The commission came from a Count Kaiserling who suffered from insomnia and ordered some piano pieces from Bach of a “gentle and lively character” to brighten up his grey nights.
Bach was not fond of variations. He considered them too boring – because in every Baroque cycle of variations, the theme, as beautiful as it may be, is first run through in quavers, then semiquavers, then demisemiquavers. The young Bach tried this out a few times on chorale melodies such as “Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig” and was able to heighten the expression. After that, he showed no interest in the genre for almost forty years. It was not until the Kaiserling commission that his creative powers were put to the test again.
The Aria, the theme of his Goldberg Variations, is a gracefully sinuous structure over a bass that slowly moves in its orbit. And this bass is the real gravitational force of the cycle, attracting thirty moons or, more precisely, thirty variations. Each one is a little different, and these differences had to be organised: on the one hand, there are character pieces with an expressive spectrum ranging from exuberance to despair; on the other hand, the virtuoso possibilities of the two-manual harpsichord were to be exhausted; thirdly, Bach constructed canons above the bass. Bach’s immersion in the bass line and what he builds on it has something of a nocturnal meditation.
Although the highly differentiated arrangement of the pieces largely preserves the principle of constant acceleration, the Goldberg Variations always draw attention to changing aspects, from the changing affect to the virtuoso, and from there to the construction. Kaiserling’s nights were now colourful and full of stars.