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András Schiff on the Goldberg Variations

J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations is one of those pieces that you can just keep listening to (you can listen to MIDI versions of it). I enjoy playing it, and I like listening to other people play it, as many people as care to play it, even if they make two recordings of it. That's what András Schiff has done, in imitation of Glenn Gould and others: a second recording of the Goldberg Variations, a live performance to go along with his earlier studio version. In an interview article with Martin Kettle (Bach at His Best, October 3) in The Guardian, Schiff says some very interesting things about this beloved piece. These are presumably related to the written notes on the piece, what he calls a "guided tour" of the Goldberg Variations, which he has included with the new CD. As with so much of Bach's music, the work is dizzyingly intellectual in its conception, underpinned by a flawlessly logical structure, of which one can listen in blissful ignorance, of course.

Schiff sees the variations as "10 groups of three . . . one variation represents 'the physical', one 'the emotional' and one 'the intellectual'," with that third one in every set in the form of a canon, "each at an increasing interval, starting with the canon in unison and working up to the canon in ninths." With such an exquisite structure in place, Bach has to undermine it by concluding with the Quodlibet as the 30th variation, what Schiff calls

a most human climax. . . . The ground bass is still there, of course, but the character of the movement is formed by two folk tunes that would have been easily recognisable to Bach's contemporaries. One of these songs is about cabbages and turnips. The other is about how long it is since he has been away. I feel it's all very sociable and merry, like a family get-together. I can imagine Bach and his family all sat round the table with a glass of beer.
The kernel of the whole thing, the aria played at the beginning and the end, is certainly, as Kettle puts it, "one of the most sublime statements of calm in all European music." It is remarkable to think of what complexities Bach drew from this statement of elegant simplicity. However, Schiff's focus in the aria and in the whole piece is not where you might expect, the melody, but on the bass: Florence Cathedral
I think the way to think of it is by thinking of Bach as an architect rather than as a painter. Beware of the tunes. Concentrate instead on the ground bass, which is the solid foundation of everything else. Where I live now in Florence, we have this most beautiful cathedral with its dome and cupola by Brunelleschi. But it would not be there without the foundations to hold it up. Similarly in music there is a tendency to follow the top line. I think always in music we should start with the bass.
This statement was so thought-provoking that I stood up from the computer, went to find my score of the Goldberg Variations, and played the aria to see what Schiff was talking about.

It also happens that the subject of my Humanities lecture this morning was Filippo Brunelleschi and S. Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence. To continue this theme of architecture and music, I follow the class on Florence Cathedral with a lecture on the piece Guillaume Dufay wrote for the consecration of that building, an isorhythmic motet called Nuper rosarum flores, an extraordinarily complex piece of music that is structured according to mathematical numbers and ratios corresponding to the description of the Temple of Jerusalem in the Old Testament.

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