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Bach’s centuries old, devilishly difficult Goldberg Variations continue to challenge pianists and fascinate audiences.


Bach is among the most prodigious and influential composers ever. And one piece he wrote late in his life is seen by pianists today as being as rewarding as it is intimidating.

Jeremy Denk: It’s so well trodden. It’s so difficult and so treacherous and everyone knows it and they know when you screw up and why would you do that to yourself?

Jeremy Denk is among a select group of classical pianists to have mastered the Goldbergs, a set of 32 variations on a theme that highlight Bach’s virtuosity.

Denk: You could say that he loved to show off and that he had more chops than any composer of all time basically, and he enjoyed using his chops as a vehicle for various things. It’s so loving, the way that he does it. It’s like each of the intervals is his friend and he knows them so well that he writes a little portrait of what they’re like.

Simone Dinnerstein: It’s a piece of music that seems to explore every different type of shade of feeling that it would be possible to have.

Simone Dinnerstein’s 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations reached number one on Billboard’s classical music charts and helped launch her to international stardom. For Dinnerstein, they encapsulate everything that’s great about Bach.

Dinnerstein: The fact that Bach wrote this at the end of his life and that it seems to incorporate so many elements of other compositions that he wrote shows that he was thinking about a sort of huge tapestry unlike any other kind of composition that had come before it and really since it.

For many years the received wisdom was that Bach wrote the variations to ease the insomnia of a Russian diplomat. They were to be played by his court harpsichordist Johann Goldberg. This myth comes from a biography of the composer written more than a half a century after his death. It’s a nice story, but not altogether true, says Penn music professor Jeffrey Kallberg

Jeffrey Kallberg: As far as anyone can tell that you know was entirely made up. It’s one of those kind of nice stories that people like to tell about music.

AJC: Do you think the people have tried to use it to sleep? ‘Cause I know I did one time and it was completely disquieting.

Kallberg: The version of the story I read was that he suffered from insomnia and so he wanted something to entertain his brain while he couldn’t sleep, so it wasn’t that he was trying to be put to sleep, but—

AJC: That sounds more likely.

Kallberg: Now that might work. I should try that.

And to help fill the wee small hours, Bach taps into all of human emotion.

Denk: There are joyous variations, there are the deepest, most tragic imaginable variations. There’s a great moment where he goes from the depth of tragedy to the most ludicrous kind of Tom and Jerry kind of cartoon comedy, you know? And so one of the things that Bach wants us to feel is a chain of different feelings and the way that they pass, one to the other. And then one of the things that Bach is dealing with in Goldberg Variations is very simple that the pianist has two hands, and of course his harpsichord he wrote it for had two keyboards, and everything is about these two hands leaping over each other or running into each other or chasing each other and there’s sort of a childlike feeling of just the pleasure of, of notes

But says Simone Dinnerstein, playing a piece written for two keyboards on a single piano isn’t all fun and games.

Dinnerstein: Putting them together onto one keyboard means that sometimes you’re having to share the same key with two hands, and you’re having to be crossing over your hands and it’s very acrobatic and also counterintuitive because if you’re playing with your right hand all the way in the bass and your left hand all the way in the treble and you’re thinking about what the music looks like on the page, everything is kind of upside down. It’s both physically challenging and also mentally challenging, and then finally the very difficult thing is the endurance to perform it from beginning to end. And just keep it going, it can take 90 minutes.

And a movie length piece with no intermission is also no small ask for audiences.

Kallberg: For the average listener today you know it’s hard to bring the elements of concentration that are needed to follow the various threads through the music. You know Bach took this baseline and basically riffed on it for 30 variations.

And this riffing on a variation is something that would become a hallmark of a uniquely 20th Century art form.

Denk: Goldberg Variations is almost by definition a giant jazz riff. That’s what a harmonic variation is. Goldberg Variations is a set of variations not on the theme per se, which comes back at the end, but on the harmonies under the theme. And Bach does almost everything possible to hide the theme, and what does a jazzer do? They never want you to hear the theme, they’re just doing their, doing riffs on the harmony.

The piece itself was in hiding for more than two centuries until rediscovered by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who’d make what many consider to be the definitive recordings of the piece.

Kallberg:  I think of Gould as someone pushing the edge on everything and you know the playing was brilliant technically and the interpretation really seemed to suddenly bring this piece from the 18th Century and make it seem like it was part of our culture.

Denk: He brought such an incredible strength of mind to it, such an imagination, and it reinvented sort of the idea of Bach at the piano.

But such is the depth of Bach’s masterpiece that its possibilities for reinvention, rediscovery, and reinterpretation are boundless.

Dinnerstein: I think I’ve now performed the Goldberg Variations several hundred times, I’m gonna guess, and I still find them utterly fascinating. So to me, that’s the mark of something that is just a real masterpiece that you could spend so much time with it and it continues to be fresh.