Token Creek Chamber Music

Program III

Program III - Variations

Saturday, September 10, 2022 at 4:00 P.M.


Bach’s Goldberg Variations Tonality, Architecture, Logic Robert D. Levin Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen BWV 988 (date) (“The Goldberg Variations”) Johann Sebastian Bach   Robert Levin, piano

Program Notes

In previous eras, Bach’s music was often thought of as esoteric, cerebral, formidable, something only the initiated could truly appreciate.  That time is past. He is now perhaps the most popular of classical composers, at least as measured by modern commercial standards: mentions in the press, in celebrity interviews, the sales of his recordings. 

From the Glenn Gould phenomenon in the 1950’s, through YoYo Ma playing solo suites on occasions of public celebration or distress, to couples wanting to add beauty and gravitas to their wedding ceremonies, Bach is the first destination when concert music is summoned by popular culture. 

The phenomenon represents much more than respect—the music is taught, studied, and cherished by citizens of all ages throughout the world.  Bach transcends category, as Shakespeare does, and has lost that aura of difficulty and specialization that hovers even in Tovey’s great Bach essays of a hundred years back. 

And amid this demystification of Bach stand certain pieces that dominate with special persistence. 

All three of the big full-evening choral-orchestral pieces fill churches and auditoriums.  The St. Matthew Passion has a perennial hold over the Good Friday-Easter season in many cities.  Although its text reports very specific scriptural events, this Passion drama welcomes a larger community of mourners who discover their personal connection to its themes of bereavement, salvation, and hope for an afterlife. 

Of a completely different character, the Magnificat, has proven to be the most popular of Bach’s works in the choral-orchestral-chamber music category.  It is sonically like ten cantatas in one, every moment a different scoring, each movement very brief and memorable.  Emmanuel Music’s (Boston) longtime Music Director Craig Smith claimed the piece demonstrated Bach’s discomfort in very short forms: “Every piece ends too soon,” he said. But that conciseness is part of the work’s lasting appeal. 

Today’s most widely popular Bach piece is certainly the Goldberg Variations.  Here many factors converge: it has a good story behind it, it deals in extreme composer and performer virtuosity, and its structure—variations over a bass line—invites secure tracking by listeners, at least by jazz and pop music fans. 

Goldberg includes one very unusual feature: the bookend framing of the opening-closing Aria movement.  Classical composers do not conform to this practice.  A surprising exception is the final movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109 (Beethoven omits the repeats of each half of the theme). 

Listening to the Goldberg offers various interesting tracks one might follow:

I. One might focus, one time, on the canons (movements 2, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21), noticing how brilliantly the composer manages to move the harmony in the ones based on consonant intervals (the 3rd and the 6th), which generate forward movement and need more skill for integration into the “given” harmonic plan. And each of these canons offers a kind of pulsation or pattern that be at home in any Bach keyboard collection.

II. Or, the hearer can track a dance suite or partita: 

No. 4 – Minuet

No. 7 – Passepied

No. 10 – Fugue

No. 11 – Gigue

No. 16 – Overture

No. 19 – Prelude (a la Well-Tempered Clavier)

No. 30 – (grab bag) 

III. Or, one might trace the obvious virtuoso challenges: 1, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 28, gradually compressing in frequency and increasing in intricacy. 

IV. Or, one might focus on the meditative pieces, 13 & 25, which turn out to be at the heart of the piece, and form a spiritual alliance with two of the canons, 13 & 15. 

Finally, it is the interleaved structure that forces the ear back to its anchor in this piece, bass line motion with its implied harmony: vigorously executed, omnipresent, and always yielding foreground impression to one of the inner movement sequences we have mentioned, sequences that adhere to one other throughout the Goldberg Variations. 

— Notes by John Harbison
Artistic Co-Director, Token Creek Chamber Music Festival