Transcriptions, Arrangements, and Improvisations on Bach’s Austere Masterpiece
Writing about my musical path for the New York Times last month, I noted that the one strand of continuity for me, between instruments and repertoires, was Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Part of that continuity was my dissatisfaction with the work. Don’t get me wrong, the Goldbergs are incredible. But, from piano to harpsichord to organ, I felt there was always some way in which I was let down by the work when faced with the constraints of the instrument.
Recording the Goldbergs on my first instrument, the modern pedal harp, I was aware that the endeavor could seem like a novelty. However, despite the austere reputation of Bach’s masterpiece, transcriptions of the Goldbergs are nothing new (even on the harp). In fact, they were one of the main ways that the music was shared and preserved. It’s a tradition that continues to this day, as seen in these creative approaches to the Goldbergs that challenge convention on traditional instruments, and give the work fresh meaning through new mediums.
One Christmas during the 2000s, when I was 11, my sister and I each got our own LP player. (Amidst the digital recording revolution, I’m fairly certain that every other boomer’s kid looked through their parents’ record collections and asked, “What the hell are these?”) While my sister would retire to her room to crank up “Rubber Soul” and “Graceland,” I grabbed every harpsichord album I could find from my parents’ shelves. Wanda Landowska’s “Goldberg Variations” was one such disc and my first introduction to the Goldbergs. While the playing bears the hallmarks of her era (some slower tempi, an absence of rubato, a few wayward ornaments here and there), she was the first recording artist to reclaim the work for the harpsichord. That step that would help set in motion the widespread revival of the instrument in the 20th century. While we love to talk about transcription as some cute transgression, Landowska wasn’t simply breaking rules. A true iconoclast, she was challenging convention, actively seeking out a modern approach to Bach’s music using the composer’s own instrument.
When I moved to the UK from my home in Tennessee, I had some homesickness that led to blasting the Dixie Chicks in my dorm and religiously listening to “Prairie Home Companion” late on Saturday nights. Through that, I rediscovered the enjoyment I took in listening to bluegrass and folk. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with Chris Thile’s albums, especially from his days in the trio Nickel Creek. Thile’s rendition of the first variation of the Goldbergs, with fellow plucker Mike Marshall, always makes me smile. Its very naturally-swung sixteenth notes are akin to notes inégales, those small fluctuations of duration between notes of equal value used in historical performance.
As a piano student in high school, I was starting to get “into” the Goldbergs a bit at the keyboard, and scoped out recordings online. I knew about the Jacques Loussier Trio thanks to my dad (a trombonist and former Nashville session musician), but I only gave the group a chance when I heard their second variation from the Goldbergs. There are supposedly only three minor key variations in the piece. Here, however, pianist Loussier, bass player Pierre Michelot, and percussionist Christian Garros take the harmonic structure and throw it out the window, providing an icy E-minor backdrop to the counterpoint. The Goldbergs are so reliant on the repetition of the same chord progression over and over in each variation, which means that removing Bach’s harmonic restraints in this variation completely exposes the melody, and highlights how beautiful it is in its own right.
During my undergraduate days at Cambridge, Richard Egarr was director of one of the city’s top orchestras, the Academy of Ancient Music. Locally, he had something of a cult following. Whenever possible, I would hear his concerts. Time and time again, I was struck by his ability to foster resonance and luminosity at the harpsichord, an instrument normally known for its ability to be overly-articulate and spiky. In Variation 20 on his recording of the Goldbergs, Egarr eases into a movement which many harpsichordists play in a jumpy or staccato style. The result is far less reminiscent of contemporary keyboard works, instead resembling more the delicate style of the lute or the theorbo.
Just as Glenn Gould’s and Gustav Leonhardt’s takes on the “Goldbergs” loomed over the 20th century, it’s hard to talk about the “Goldbergs” in the States without discussing about Jeremy Denk’s recording of and blogging about the piece in the 21st. When I was at Oberlin, he was the alumnus on the tip of everyone’s tongue, a figurehead for how to make classical music both smart and communicable without being trite. I happened upon his articles for NPR on the Goldbergs just a few days before I was set to give a performance of them for my master’s recital on the harpsichord. If anything, articles with titles like “Why I Hate the Goldberg Variations” offered some comfort to a historical performance student who had probably bitten off a little more than he could chew for his graduation recital. Denk’s recording speaks on its own beautifully, but when placed in conjunction with his writing, the “Goldbergs” take on a fascinating new intellectual element, as the act of learning and thinking about them away from the keyboard becomes an object of inquiry.
Since moving to New York, I’ve become a Dan Tepfer fangirl. It takes a phenomenal amount of guts and courage to incorporate something as personal as solo improvisation into a work of such stature. Over the last few years, I’ve really come to enjoy his live performances (which are incredibly varied and inspired!), but his recorded improvisation after Variation 22 has a lovely nonchalance, reflecting the straightforwardness of Bach’s counterpoint. The improvisations tend to be well-suited to the variations, as I suspect his sensibilities as an improviser and interpreter go hand in hand. This is in the spirit of Bach himself, who was a noted improviser at the keyboard.
Flutist and vocalist Emi Ferguson is one of my favorite musicians to work with in New York. In her album “Fly the Coop,” she and period instrument ensemble Ruckus reimagine Bach’s Flute Sonatas using a larger continuo section, while also drawing on influences from folk and Americana styles. But the album also offers a fantastic and fleeting glimpse into Bach’s brain, as the ensemble interweaves the fifth variation from the “Goldbergs” into the second movement from the Flute Sonata in C major. We love to put the Goldbergs on a pedestal, seeing it as a magnanimous work that is somehow separate or divorced from Bach’s other music. But in this track, we’re reminded just how much Bach recycled and revisited his own material over the course of his life.
Finally, we have Fretwork’s lovely rendition of the Goldbergs for viol consort. While all the movements are interpreted with poise and elegance, the Quodlibet comes to life as a time warp. Throughout the Goldbergs, Bach is playing with fughettas, French galant styles and virtuosic keyboard idioms—until the very end. Combining two folk songs in a madrigal-esque style, Bach hearkens back to the 16th century, where singing and consort performances with viols were a chief means of communal musicianship within the home. In transferring this final movement to the viols, this larger than life work is not only shifted in time, but in locution, taken off the stage and placed into the listener’s sitting room. ¶