Matthew Bengtson’s program on Sunday afternoon with Market Square Concerts – this one’s at Whitaker Center, Sunday at 4pm – opens with the first piano sonata by Alexander Skryabin (or Scriabin, if you prefer the standard Western spelling), followed by a number of short works by a number of composers from the 20th and 21st Centuries including one called “90+” which Elliott Carter composed for a colleague’s 90th birthday and a set of pieces by Jeremy Gill (a native of Harrisburg) who composed his “Eliot Fragments” (inspired in part by lines from the poetry of T.S. Eliot) as a celebration of Elliott Carter’s 100th Birthday (which occurred officially last month).
To call the single, large-scale piece on the second half of the program a “major work” is something of an understatement. It’s one of those monolithic masterpieces – I’m assuming that’s the right word, since it makes me think of one of those great stone monuments like Stonehenge – that is often more heard about than heard. And for some reason, often feared.
First of all, it’s long. Depending on the performer’s tempos and other considerations, it could be between 50 and 80 minutes long. The good news is, for those who are concerned about their attention spans, it’s comprised of 32 sub-units that make the more massive-seeming whole a little more first-time friendly.
If you’d just experienced Mahler’s 9th Symphony, played earlier this month by the Harrisburg Symphony (I wrote about it at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train), you’ve already sat through about 90 minutes of very intense music. According to some of the people I talked to after both performances, it didn’t really seem all that long and was, as one older listener put it, “worth the ride.” For many people, the trick is to figure out how to balance drinking enough coffee to keep you awake without your needing to hit the rest rooms for an hour and a half...
So how would a first-timer face this presumably daunting work by Johann Sebastian Bach, aside from making sure you visit the little room during intermission? How would you get beyond any first-time jitters to understanding and enjoying one of the Great Works of the Western World?
I’ve often described the “Goldberg Variations” as walking through a gallery where you get to view 30 miniatures in succession - only you can’t walk around. Sitting still that long may be a challenge for some, but think of it as a gallery where each piece comes to you.
If there are 32 separate component parts to this piece, is it really “a piece”?
Well, in the same respect that a gallery exhibit may have a theme, yes. There’s nothing really random about the variations (the paintings) and in fact there’s much more going on behind them than meets the eye - or rather, ear.
You enter the exhibit through the first piece you hear. It’s called simply “Aria.” Having experienced thirty separate variations after that, you come around full-circle to the Aria again.
Really all Aria means anyway is “a theme or air,” not necessarily something that should strike you as operatic: if anything, this aria is one of the most poignant, absolutely lovely miniatures Bach ever wrote. And I’m not even sure he really wrote it.
This aria – gorgeous just by itself – appears first in the 2nd volume of the “Anna Magdalena Notebook,” a manuscript collection dated 1725 where Bach’s wife (and sometimes the children) wrote in short pieces that were intended for household performance. Some of the most famous pieces which, because they were here, were considered to have been composed by Bach turn out to be by someone else, but someone copied it into the “musical household book” without thinking any crime was being committed by leaving out a composer’s name! For instance, the aria “Bist du bei mir,” one of Bach’s most beloved melodies, is actually by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. Several pieces are presumably by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, No. 2 Son, and some in the collection of lighter songs and dances might be by the other children as well, including their son Gottfried Heinrich who was what would be called today a “special needs child,” though he played the harpsichord well and his older half-brother C.P.E. said he possessed a genius that “never developed.” Several of the daughters were musically talented, as well, perhaps even did some composing themselves.
Now, considering there’s considerable debate these days about Anna Magdalena being the actual composer of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites, isn’t it possible she might have composed this simple, ingenuous little aria? Of course, it’s just conjecture, but if there are people who point out certain things that might not be Bach’s musical fingerprints, couldn’t they be his wife’s?
At any rate, the aria was in a book compiled in 1725. Bach’s “Aria with Diverse Variations,” as he called it, was published in 1741 and probably composed the year or so before. Now, noted Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has theorized that Anna Magdalena copied the aria from Bach’s original manuscript into two pages that for some reason or other had been left blank in her notebook for the last 15 years. I suppose it’s possible...
The question can never be answered because the manuscript in Bach’s own handwriting has never turned up. It’s unfortunate that when Johann Sebastian died in 1750, his library and his manuscript collections were divided between the two oldest sons. No. 2 Son C.P.E.’s share remained largely intact. No. 1 Son, Wilhelm Friedemann, ran into financial difficulties, had a little problem with alcohol and sold much of his share of the collection. And some of his also was just simply lost.
Wherever the “Aria” came from and who wrote it is not important: it was common for composers to take a “found source” – a theme by somebody else – and use it as the basis for their own variations: Beethoven’s Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn (a theme which actually Haydn borrowed from an old chorale tune, so it’s not even his to begin with) – Mozart, in an odd twist of fate, even wrote a set of variations on a theme by Antonio Salieri, the man who would later become more famous for the rumors surrounding his involvement in Mozart’s death than for all the music he composed in his long and successful career.
Bach’s set of variations are called “The Goldberg Variations” not because Goldberg wrote the theme. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was a student of Bach’s and an employee of Count Keyserlingk (the name can be spelled different ways), the Russian Ambassador to the Saxon Court. Occasionally, Keyserlingk brought Goldberg to Leipzig to study with his friend Bach. One could imagine the Count, who suffered from insomnia, listening to someone in the family playing things from the Notebook one evening. He was supposed to have asked Bach to write some keyboard pieces for his household musician Goldberg to play for him during those long late-night hours when he couldn’t sleep – as Bach’s first biographer describes it, “some clavier pieces for his Goldberg which would be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” I could imagine them, sitting there discussing this, while one of the daughters, say, was playing the harpsichord in the other room and when she came to the little Aria in G Major, Keyserlingk stopped to listen and would say “maybe some variations on that?!”
Pure Hollywood, I’m sure, but barring anything beyond such conjecture, still a possibility.
Bach called the work “Aria with Diverse Variations for the Harpsichord with Two Manuals, Composed for Music Lovers, to Refresh their Spirits” and signed himself Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, a title that Keyserlingk had a few years earlier helped Bach obtain from the somewhat slow-moving Saxon bureaucracy in Dresden.
We know them as “The Goldberg Variations.”
Incidentally, Young Mr. Goldberg must have been quite talented: at the time these were published – and he would presumably have been the first person to perform them – he was 14 years old.
At the very end of these “diverse variations” is an odd little variation called “the quodlibet.” Now, a quodlibet was an odd kind of thing, like a musical happening. The composer would weave various popular songs of the day into the fabric of a piece of music. It wasn’t exactly a “serious” art form and we would consider it, since we are intent on putting everything in its proper pigeon-hole, a “novelty.”
One of Bach’s earliest biographers – Forkel, as I recall, writing about 50 years after J.S. Bach’s death – probably got this story from C.P.E. Bach himself, how the family would sit around and, in days before TV and stereos, would make their own music. They would begin their gatherings with a chorale, being good devout church musicians, and from their proceed to musical jokes quoting “popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment.” Certainly an inside joke for the performers and their audience if lost on modern-day listeners who, of course, would no longer know what these songs were.
If Keyserlingk had partaken of one of these quodlibet-evenings, it would make sense why Bach chose to “almost” end his variations with a piece that quoted at least two popular songs – one with the line “I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer" and another little ditty including the lines “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away; had my mother cooked meat, I'd have opted to stay.” There are other tunes which “have been lost to us” but it amazes me that in so short a piece as this, he could have crammed in even that much!
Whether “cabbages and turnips” had anything to do with helping cause Keyserlingk’s insomnia, the inside joke for the first tune sets up the unexpected reappearance of the Aria, played exactly as it was at the beginning, perhaps an hour earlier. If the Count had expressed a particular affection for this charming little piece, it would make sense. And the quodlibet – which to us may not have that same kind of humor Keyserlingk would have heard in it – would give us a very personal glimpse into a very private moment of music-making, and something that, I’m sure, would make Keyserlingk smile each time he heard it.
There’s an old joke that Bach composed the Variations to help the insomniac Count drift off to sleep – and true, there are those who might indeed find it somniferous – but he probably created this enormous and encyclopedic collection on the “Art of Variation” to give his friend something to chew on, musically speaking, so that at least his mind could be engaged if he was going to be kept awake late into the night. I mean, why sit up and just watch old re-runs of “American Idol”?
My next post will be a little more detailed about the Variations themselves – including the “Road Map” that I’m going to be presenting to the students at the Capital Area School for the Arts on Tuesday afternoon. But for now, I just wanted to share with you a few of these little personal insights behind the music.
- Dr. Dick, Market Square Concerts' kammerblogger