Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould (1955)
Let’s be honest: this list is really more about me than you. I call it a ‘list for the dying’ because these songs, these artists, these albums lift me aloft to something akin to the Shakesperean or Donne-esque, metaphysical death: la petite mort, if you will. You know: the more bookish concept of ‘death’ that can masquerade as climax, transcendence, or rebirth with relative ease.
Full disclosure: these records are all about me. When I die, if I am to return as a listless spirit, I ask only that I may have these albums handy – and not solely these albums, mind you. There any many others I would take with me into the beyond, like Desire, or Abbey Road. But these five records I have listed in the past few weeks must be included in the manifest. These records transformed me into the snobbish, persnickety blogger and music lover that writes these selfsame words, and isn’t that what death really is? A transformation? I’m looking in your direction, Obi-Wan…
Perhaps I intentionally misled you into thinking this list was compiled for you. Or maybe I’m just in too deep. More than likely, however, this list was simply a challenge to myself: a challenge I would inevitably fail. It is this way with all great challenges, no? A challenge to give a dying man five great albums before he sinks away into the gloom, or whatever. And as long as we’re discussing death, let us consider that most desirable of deathly escapes: dying in one’s sleep. There it is again: death dressed up as something more sanguine, in this case sleep.
So goes the tale with these arrangements, that a stern, humorless composer (J. S. Bach) was commissioned by a filthy rich Russian ambassador (Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk) to compose a series of variations that could be played to him deep into the night by his personal musician (courtesan and harpsichord virtuoso Johann Gottlieb Goldberg), while in the throws of insomnia (this being before the days of Benedryl or Xanax, and Heir Keyserlingk’s tastes, I guess, ranging beyond the rather barbaric valerian root or chamomile tea). Hence did Keyserlingk commission from Bach these Goldberg Variations: quite literally variations of what turned out to be popular melodies of Bach’s day: songs you would just as easily hear issuing from a brothel as you would from an opera house, here woven into arrangements both complex and delicate.
For a true entree to the Variations, listen to the Aria da capo (literally ‘air from the head’, but meaning ‘song from the beginning‘), perhaps one of the most celebrated pieces in recorded classical music, and certainly one of the most beautiful. As I mentioned before, this simple melody (played as a single voice to introduce the bass contours that are varied upon later), was actually an amalgamation of two popular tunes from Bach’s day that this ingenious composer then diversified into an album of sundry bagatelles for ‘the connoisseur’, as the original sheet music states.
Sounds hideous, I know. But you must imagine that this is similar to Danger Mouse walking into a bar, mashing up The Beatles and Jay Z on the jukebox, and walking out with The Grey Album – a series of well-intentioned exercises on the synthesis of two musical concepts. This gentle and timeless work of melodic subtlety is in fact so well known, and so beautiful, that it is often used to provide dramatic counterpoint to the downright grotesque in some of the most memorable scenes in modern film and television. You will most likely remember the Aria co-opted as something of a theme song for Hannibal Lector in this rather perverse scene from 1991’s Silence of the Lambs:
Not to be outdone in the serial killer genre, HBO’s True Detective pays further homage to Lambs in episode six of it’s first season:
Do keep in mind that Bach was not actually known for his playing of the Variations, though he did play many different instruments quite well. In fact, there is no evidence that Bach ever played these particular arrangements outside those moments wherein he actually composed them. His job here was merely to write the music: one Aria aforementioned, and 30 contrapuntal variations on the bass line of said Aria.
Sounds boring? Well, you’re boring, because counterpoint was the closest thing to a mash-up that the common practice period could lay claim to, combining two or more voices that, while harmonious together, were quite distinct in rhythm and pitch contours, as typified very nicely in Variation 10 (Fughetta). If it helps you to understand this, think of two distinct, but harmonically similar songs played at the same time. For the sake of example, I shall direct you again to the aforementioned Danger Mouse:
So who has actually played The Goldberg Variations? Well, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg certainly played almost nightly for his employer. But who has recorded it for our listening pleasures? There is a growing list including Bach stalwart Gustav Leonhardt, virtuoso pianist Claudio Arrau, and NPR and NYRB darling Jeremy Denk, and you can certainly explore all of them in your free time. But what I think is a more interesting debate is which recorded version of The Variations is the most beautiful, which I shall weigh in at this time.
To those accustomed to meticulous production and smoothly compressed sound, I would wager that Andras Schiff’s is the most elegant that I’ve heard, as his Aria is a simply beautiful and ethereal performance, with subtle retardations massaged in to evoke a longing not heard in other versions. I trust you’ll find in the clip below that, though his hands are something of a miracle to watch, he looks totes cray cray while looking at the camera.. you’ve been warned:
Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s 1989 interpretations are somewhat silly, owing largely to a stilted and unmemorable technique that did little to reinvent the Variations, though Jarrett gets points for employing the harpsichord for which these arrangements were originally prescribed. Where he is to cash in these points is beyond me:
Forthwith I shall now direct you to what is arguably the most famous of recorded interpretations of Bach’s famous work, and the subject of this very post: Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould’s 1955 debut album, wherein he catapulted himself to international fame and absolutely transformed the Variations from utter obscurity to arguably the most celebrated classical record of all fucking time. For these reasons, and many others, Gould’s Variations is certainly the clear winner.
Listen to Gould’s Aria, played in a naively halting style, as if it was almost being performed by a child. Leaving aside that Glenn Gould was a mere 22 years of age at the time of the recording, the melody quickly becomes more advanced, folded over with the trills and the other embellishments that Bach is so well-known for, as evidenced by the extent to which he inculcated the Baroque period with his stylistic flourishes:
But it is not until Gould enters upon the variations of this Aria that the album really comes alive. The vibrancy of each arrangement, and the range he shows as a pianist and a performer made him well-placed in the high-brow, New York entertainment scene of the Fifties and Sixties. And though Gould revisited the Variations in 1981, shortly before he himself died (no doubt listening to some killer shit on his own stereo), and that record was somewhat stilted and airless in comparison, it had nevertheless sold over two million copies less than twenty years later, largely owed to the fame of the original 1955 album:
It’s hard to overstate the fame of Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, but when I first listened to it, really listened to it, it changed me in a way that all previous classical recordings had failed to do. It was nighttime and I was outside in the dark, and there was me, and there was my headphones, and I was inspired, happy, forlorn, pensive, thoughtful, morose, moved and lastly, not bored. You know, the way that audiences would have been in Bach’s day: enthralled and connected to the performance, and accepting the music for what it was: transportation to a higher realm.
There are many works of recorded classical, baroque, romantic, and modern music out there: truly something for everyone. But if you ask the reductionist in me to name the pivotal classical album that one simply must hear before she dies, it would have to be Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould.
I know what you’re saying now: “Dave, you’re a fucking elitist and your list doesn’t speak to me at all! You know nothing about me, and furthermore these albums you’ve chosen suck, as do you, sir. You’re a dick and your writing style is at best superfluous, at worst like a kind of sticky, sweet diarrhea.”
Perhaps you’re right, but this list isn’t about you.
Thanks for reading…