Friday, September 3, 2010

vacation PLUS goldberg variations, part 1

Coming off the high of a long vacation isn't easy. For those who don't now, I recently spent a whole week "off the grid," by which I mean, "off the grid by virtue of sheer determination to avoid friends' smart-phones," in Utah, Idaho, and Montana. We were camping, hiking, driving, getting speeding tickets, taking precautions against bear attacks (by speeding), and eating lots of dried foods. Since every time I try to describe how amazing it was I use the word "amazing" a half dozen times per sentence, I will instead complain about various aspects of returning home, and you can infer how, um, amazing the trip was in contrast. Grievance #1: the lack of mountain scenery in Evanston, Il. Also, humidity. Yuck.

Okay, now that that's over with! Among the more comforting privileges of my so-called real life is that of playing the Goldberg Variations, which, if you didn't know, is the greatest piece of music ever. Well, at least it's up there! I generally divide music up into four categories: great, good, bad, and incomprehensible. More and more, I believe that all great music is more or less created equal, that it just takes someone to give it life and realize its potential. (Thus, why my favorite pieces used to so predictably follow my favorite recordings...and maybe still do a little). Bach's music, however, has always stood out above the rest. So while 11 of my favorite 12 composers are always jostling for position, based on what I've listened to in the last day, the top spot's pretty much a done deal.

Of course, that may be a mere artifact of my bizarre childhood. The Gould '55 recording of the Goldbergs was actually the first CD I ever owned (a gift from my father's mother), and it came to me during that long stretch of my life where the music I listened to consisted exclusively of Bach played by Glenn Gould and Madonna. People are often surprised at how much of the Well-Tempered Clavier I can play, but given the number of times I listened to it as a child it's sad that I can't the play whole damn thing. (I can, however, still play and/or sing the entire Immaculate Collection).

In addition to having the advantage of being one of the first pieces of music I ever knew, the Goldberg Variations have a lot of other stuff going for them. Though I still can't play the whole WTC, I can, as of like a week ago, play the whole damn Goldberg Variations. As I prepare to perform them, I'll try to tell you all about how amazing they are. But really you should just buy this...or come hear me play them! Hmmm, on second thought, just buy Glenn Gould's versions.

With my sister as inspiration, I'll go ahead and start ranking the various variations, with the disclaimer that they're all amazing and talking about them individually borders on non-sensical anyway. But it'll still be fun. Starting with the outliers on the bottom end:

30. variation 17
29. variation 11

So how can I heap such praise on a piece of music and then pick out about two loser variations in the mix? Well, first of all, every piece of music has ups and downs, and needs points of release. These are the lightest of the Goldbergs, positively carefree and whimsical in the case of 17, honest and unassuming in the case of 11. They are breaks in the action, relatively speaking.

But there's more to the story. The 30 variations are grouped in 3's, with all but the first group of 3 and the last group of 3 following this pattern: the first variation is a standard baroque form, the second is a virtuosic piece written for the hands to play on separate keyboards (or manuals), and the third is a canon. The two manual movements are a bitch to play on piano, because they involve all sorts of hand crossings and doublings of notes between the hands. On a harpsichord with two manuals, these repeated crossings are no particular problem, because the hands are playing separate keyboards, but on piano, they're nearly unplayable without resorting to "cheating" (I'll explain later). Part of the reason these two variations above make the loser list is that they make the worst use of my instrument of choice, and it's hard to hide. These two-manual movements are also generally the most energetic and lively of the variations, with 11 and 17 being the exceptions. But it's all uphill from there.


  1. so do you have a date set yet for when you're gonna play it??

  2. And anyway, why hasn't some one built a two-manual piano??

    And I agree ... #11, especially after #10 (which must be high on the list) is a little bit of a letdown ...

    And also - congratulations! the day you play the whole GV for the first time has to be a red-letter day, for sure ...

  3. Sam: I am going to listen/study before your recital . . though I won't catch up to Dad.

  4. someone has built a two-manual piano! i just heard about it this far as i know there's only one that's been used in concerts, and i can't find much about it. see here: