I spent a night in the workshop of two masters, J. S. Bach and the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff. Schiff gave a concert and talk at the 92nd Street Y in New York, the first half devoted to the Goldberg Variations.
I love the venue: The main auditorium of the Y is an old-fashioned half octagon, in dark wood, with the names of great men stenciled in gold on the cornice. As befits a YMHA, the three names directly over the stage are David, Moses, and Isaiah. But they are flanked by Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson. Dante (the Christian poet) and Goethe (the Goethian poet) also appear — very ecumenical.
Schiff began with the theme — the bass line that runs through the opening aria and its thirty variations — and then moved through the piece, explaining its structure as he went. It was like looking at the back of some great carpet, understanding how it was woven. It is built of recurring patterns of threes — every third variation is a canon, a kind of sophisticated round, but in every new canon the echoing voice appears on a higher note of the scale. It is an anthology of 18th-century dances — passpieds, passacaglias, minuets, gigues (the latter, Schiff said, should be like jolly Irish sailors). It is also an anthology of national styles — sometimes Italian bel canto, sometimes French pomp and circumstance à la Versailles, sometimes the music of German Passions. You imagined Bach, who never left the German cities where he worked, journeying in his mind (and his library of copied music) across all of Europe, and all its walks of life.
The famous dark moment of the set is Variation 25, called by the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska the black pearl. Glenn Gould used to stretch this out to tortured length. Schiff played it more quickly, almost drily, which made it sound like, I don’t know, Webern, with here and there an odd touch of late jazz. Very disturbing, however you do it.
How to recover from such a thing? Bach sends in the cavalry of major keys. But he does more — the last variation, instead of being a canon, uses two common folk songs — “I haven’t seen you enough,” and “Turnips and cabbages my wife cooks” (more or less: I wasn’t taking notes). We vanquish despair with fun and games. But Bach does even more, for the last piece is a reprise of the simple aria which unleashed the torrent. Donald Francis Tovey, the English musicologist, said its final appearance was like an old lady, stepping out of her portrait to be among her descendants.
I heard the Goldberg Variations several times with WFB — first at a concert by Roslyn Tureck in Carnegie Hall when I had just come to NR; last, in WFB’s living room shortly before his death in a performance by the hot young pianist Simone Dinnerstein. It is hard for me to write calmly about it, because it was one of only two pieces of music I could stand to listen to when I was having chemotherapy back in 1992.
The other was a CD of Louis Armstrong, particularly his rendition of “When You’re Smiling,” which I consider a great piece of heroism. Maybe one day I’ll write about that.