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A Bach A to Z

A to Z - G
G is for Goldberg Variations

'What Bach's Goldberg Variations Means to Me', by Gabriel Josipovici

'Imagine a world which is also a river. Imagine a work of art made up of separate yet related elements which remain discrete but which, taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts. Would not any artist be tempted to imitate such a work in homage to its creator?

Perhaps musicians can keep on top of the Goldberg Variations as it unfolds, but for most of us, I suspect, listening to it induces a curious sensation: we keep losing our way, forgetting how many variations have gone by and how many are therefore still to come; yet that, strangely, releases a response to the immediate moment which is just not possible with the more teleologically driven music of the centuries that followed. The mind drifts and, suddenly, we are at the end and the aria is returning, but now poignantly different because of what has gone before - or is it we who have been changed by listening?' 

Gabriel Josipovici 's novel  Goldberg : Variations (2002) is published by Carcanet.


The following extract is taken from an interview with the actress Fiona Shaw, and will be broadcast as part of 'A Bach Christmas'.

'The music is like a cubist portrait of a person with its 32 sections. From the moment it begins you are riveted by the sensuousness of the language of the music but it's hard because it is slightly abstracted. You don't have to know what it's about, but you do feel around the middle of it - no. 24 - that there is this dark night of the soul section. Again, none of this needs any study, or learning or training, if you just listen to it while you're dusting or feeding the cat, you can feel the music ripple up under the skin. For a man wearing a very strange periwig, Bach seems to be entirely modern in the way he can somehow get onto the DNA of what we are, and what music is, and he matches them together. Accessibility isn't a question, it's entirely accessible. '
Fiona Shaw


The following extract is taken from an interview with the director Katie Mitchell, and will be broadcast as part of 'A Bach Christmas'.

'Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations is wonderful - so precise and there is no sense of man getting in the way of the music. Yet he hums along while he is playing, which gives a subjective colour to it and it's a complete contradiction to the immaculate precision.'
Katie Mitchell

    Read what others have said..

    I find the Goldbergs one of the most mesmerising compositions I’ve ever heard. The more I listen to it, the more I admire it. This most obsessive work, certainly owing to its bass line, has never really stopped for me, as though it continued an existence beyond its boundaries. Within the work itself, it stretches in and out so that when the Aria fades, I know only too well that there will follow the mirrors created by the semiquavers played by each hand in the first variation. But it also goes on beyond its material existence. Gabriel Josipovici’s Golberg: Variations is as fascinating a novel as the Goldbergs themselves.

    Phil Britton, Whitley Bay, UK
    At this years Brinkburn Festival, a small festival which takes place in the beautiful Brinkburn Priory in Northumberland. I heard Joanna MacGregor play the Variations. She had arrived only a few minutes before she was due to play the concert, due to travel delays due to the London bombings. This meant that she played without rehearsal and from manuscript, turning the pages herself. Naturally she made a couple of mistakes during the performance but she played with such passion and involvement that she took me on a musical journey that went up through the roof of the old church and far above the world and the troubles that were visting us in the summer of 2006. As the the last variation moved into the reprise of the aria I felt like I was being lowered gently down onto a cloud. On a musical note it was very interesting to contract her technique and her use of the pedal in the variations with Glenn Goulds non-use of it. This worked remarkably well in the transition back to the aria near the end, where the appearance of the aria reminded of the sound of the "still small voice of calm" that I used to sing about in Sunday School many years ago.

    Nancy Winder, Seattle, Washington, USA
    In 1972 I heard George Malcolm play the complete Goldberg Variations on harpsichord in the Great Hall at Christ Church, Oxford, as part of the English Bach Festival. During the performance, Great Tom tolled! When Mr. Malcolm was called back for an encore at the close of the concert, he said, "Let's make up for that damn bell and have another go at #___ !"

    Douglas Macnaughtan, Polmont, Falkirk
    I have been experiencing various interpretaions of the Goldberg for many years now. You can not go far wrong with the three recordings by Glenn Gould - 1955 (SMK52594) 1981 (SMK52619) and in between the live performance from Salzberg in 1959 (SMK52685). For a real Christmas treat, go to SM3K87703, which gives you a three disc set which includes his final interview and some wonderful studio out takes plus his own Quodlibet (Var 30) - great fun! The DVD of the 1981 performance is a must, if you are interested in observing technique.

    Anthony Kay, Loughborough
    The Goldberg Variations, more than any other piece of music, give me the feeling of going on a journey. Yet there is so much to experience on this journey, that I rarely feel that I can take it all in in one sitting; so I appreciate Murray Perahia's suggestion that the 32 movements fall into 4 sections of 8 movements each. I also like Perahia's interpretation of the 25th variation as the Crucifixion, with the following variations representing the Resurrection and Ascension: I find this 25th variation more moving than even the most poignant moments of the St Matthew Passion.

    Tim Price, Salisbury
    I discovered the Goldberg Variations via Murray Perahia's immaculate 2000 recording. It moves me beyond words - how wonderful the composer's art, the musician's talent and the marvel of technology which brought it to me.

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