|Dimensions||14 × 1 × 12.5 cm|
|Dimensions||14 × 1 × 12.5 cm|
In 1810, on the well-known journal Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, a satirical writing by E. Th. A. Hoffmann portrayed a somewhat less-than-successful piano recital, as narrated by the pianist himself. He was asked to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations by somebody who perhaps knew them by name, but was certainly not acquainted with the work itself. “He thinks they are only ‘Variationlets’, like [Beethoven’s] Nel cor mi non più sento [sic] or [Mozart’s] Ah vous dirai-je maman etc., and asks me to start playing them. I refuse: they all swoop in on me. So I think: ‘Then listen and explode with boredom’, and I start working. By n. 5 several ladies departed, followed by the fashionable guys. Because their teacher was playing, the Röderleins stayed – but not without anguish – until n. 12. N. 15 made Mr Zweywesten flee. Out of excessive politeness, the Baron remained until n. 30, and simply drank lots of punch, which Gottlieb had put on the piano for me”.
Sixty years after Bach’s death, this was the foreseeable reaction which would have greeted a performance of one of his masterpieces. The reasons for this radical misunderstanding of what is now considered to be one of the summits of the genre are found in the profound shift in the musical tastes, aesthetics and values between the late Baroque era and the early Romanticism, but also in the very nature of this extraordinary work.
The Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen (“Aria with diverse variations”, which can also be translated as “modifications”) was published in 1741 in Nuremberg, and thus numbers among the relatively few works by Bach which were printed during the composer’s lifetime. Indeed, the text on the richly and elegantly ornamented title-page begins with the words “Clavier-Übung”, “keyboard practice”, thus linking this publication to three other volumes of a collection previously published by Bach as Clavier-Übung I-III. It is disputed whether the Aria with variations really constitutes volume IV of the collection or simply refers to it; certainly, however, the Aria with variations shares some distinctive features with the preceding volumes. The first part of the Clavier-Übung consists of the six Partitas BWV 825-830, which were first published individually, and then collected in a single volume in 1731. The second part came in 1735, comprising the Italian Concerto BWV 972 and the French Overture BWV 831; they were followed by the third part, issued in 1739 and consisting of a variety of organ works.
Though this can be mentioned here only cursorily, all four volumes show an extraordinary and impressive compositional concept, as regards the technical and stylistic comprehensiveness, the tonal organisation and the symmetries both within a single volume and (possibly) within the entire series, with a particularly interesting focus on the relationships within the circle of fifths.
The name of Goldberg Variations, by which the Aria with Variations BWV 988 is commonly referred to, is a spurious title coming from a well-known anecdote, retold by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, who authored the first large-scale biography of J. S. Bach. According to Forkel, “the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling[k]”, had a young keyboard player in his service, namely Johann Gottliebe Goldberg. During the Count’s frequent sleepless nights, the teenager musician “had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia”. Forkel then suggests that, at the Count’s request and prompting, Bach decided to compose this set of Variations, “of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that [the Count] might be a little cheered up by them”; it is more likely, however, that Bach had composed them already, and possibly presented Kaiserlingk with a copy of his work. The present was well-received, in Forkel’s account, since the nobleman in turn rewarded the composer “with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d’or”.
The story is as famous as it is at least problematic, if not outright implausible, for a number of reasons: one of them is that Goldberg was in his early teens by the time the Variations were composed, and he should have been exceptionally gifted in order to be able to master them at such a young age. In fact, the work is extremely demanding for the player, mirroring the unsurpassed complexity of its compositional features and – also – the difficulties it poses to the listeners at a first hearing. The Goldberg Variations consist of a series of thirty Variations on a bass (which makes them radically different from the “Variationlets” cited in Hoffmann’s satire, which are variations on a tune). The bass is composed of thirty-two notes, and its first measures were commonly used and widely known at Bach’s time; indeed, other great composers (among whom, to name but two, were Purcell and Händel) had written variations on that same sequence. On his personal copy of the Variations, Bach wrote fourteen additional canons on the first notes of the bass: most of them were unknown until relatively recently, while one of them is reproduced on the most famous of Bach’s portraits.
The sequence of the Variations shows an admirable structural concept. The set of thirty Variations may be divided into two groups of fifteen each, since the sixteenth Variation represents a new beginning, in the form of a French Overture. (It may be noted that, exactly halfway through the other three Parts of the Clavier-Übung, there is a piece of the same genre, thus creating a musical bridge among the four volumes of the collection, if it was intended as such).
It is also possible to group the Variations into ten sets of three, comprising a character piece (such as a gigue, a fughetta, a cantabile piece), a virtuoso Variation (for many of which the use of two manuals on the harpsichord is prescribed) and a canon. There are, in fact, nine canons within the set; each is numbered as a multiple of three (so Variation 3, 6, 9 etc.), and its position mirrors the width of the melodic interval between the two parts responding each other in canon. Thus, Variation 3 is a Canon at the unison (i.e., the two parts, “dux” and “comes”, perform the same notes, in the same order, after a prescribed delay in time), Variation 6 is a Canon at the second (i. e. the second part transposes diatonically the tune of the first, by the interval of a second) and so on; the two central canons (at the fourth and at the fifth) are canons in contrary motion (the second part “mirrors”, quite literally, the tune and the intervals of the first). Variation 27 is, therefore, a canon at the ninth, while Variation 30 is not, as could be expected, a canon at the tenth, but rather a Quodlibet. Again according to Forkel, the Bach family (which was an extremely musical clan) periodically gathered for the pleasure of making music together, and possibly also to find jobs and planning marriages for its younger members. On such occasions, it seems that a favourite sport was to create Quodlibets, impromptu polyphonic works in which popular tunes were combined; though the style of such improvisations was frequently merry, sometimes indulging in lewd jokes, Quodlibets could also be created with more serious intentions (they could even be used to exemplify theological truths). The Quodlibet found in the Goldberg Variations comprises both kinds: along with funny ditties and ironic tunes, there are erudite musical quotes (alluding to the Bergamasca tune, on which countless variations had been written in turn, and to a beautiful set of variations by Buxtehude) and even, probably, a chorale tune, which might represent a supreme homage to the Creator crowning a musician’s ultimate creative achievement.
After the Quodlibet, Bach prescribes to repeat the initial Aria “da capo”, thus bringing the total of the pieces to thirty-two, a number corresponding to that of the bass notes and of the pages in the first edition. While this admirable order can only be appreciated when observing the original print, and can hardly be guessed by listening to the set, the Aria da capo – the repetition of the initial piece – never fails to leave a deep impression on the hearers. The very same piece which had opened the series, and which had then seemed to be a fragile, almost ingenuous tune, now brings the cycle to its close, and appears as an unearthly fragment of pure beauty. It is literally transfigured, even though it is musically identical to its first appearance, by what has happened between its two performances; the masterfully itinerary created by Bach, and the painstaking exploration of all possible implications of the bass, has produced a feeling of enchanted awe and amazement at its return at the end of the piece.
Playing the Goldberg Variations on the piano is a challenging task and a fascinating adventure at the same time. The first challenges to face are very practical: Bach’s systematic use of the harpsichord’s two manuals frequently causes some very awkward and uncomfortable hand-positions when the virtuoso pieces are played on a traditional piano. More importantly, from the musical viewpoint, to play the Goldberg Variations on the piano is to perform a transcription, an arrangement, which, though sanctioned by a long and glorious tradition of its own, still requires the interpreter to intervene in a highly creative fashion on a number of issues regarding both performance and style. In the hands of such a pianist as the one featured in this Da Vinci production, this artistic challenge becomes a thrilling listening experience and a touching musical itinerary.
Soraci, Pietro (Pianist) born in Catania, Italy, showed his extraordinary natural talent in playing the piano since he was three years old, gaining the interest of the national press and televisions. He performed first when he was eleven, with the Orchestra of Bellini Opera Theater. He graduated with the highest score, cum laude, and honored with a special award of appreciation. After experiencing different approaches to the piano music and techniques through the contact with some of the major teachers he was awarded of several prizes in national and international piano competitions and in particular he was recognized as the best Italian pianist by the international piano competition “Frederic Chopin” in Varsaw (Polen) in 1985. Currently, he performs all over Europe and Italy by the main Music Institutions and Concert Seasons both as soloist and in ensembles. Moreover he is full Professor for the major degree in piano music by the Conservatorio di Milano “G. Verdi”. Has recently undertaken (by Da Vinci classics) the complete opera recording of Bach keyboard on critical edition with Barenreiter patronage.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.