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Why I Hate The 'Goldberg Variations'

(Jeremy Denk joins us all week to explore the Goldberg Variations. Read his posts on Tuesday and Thursday.)

The best reason to hate Bach's Goldberg Variations—aside from the obvious reason that everyone asks you all the time which of the two Glenn Gould recordings you prefer—is that everybody loves them. Not a moment goes by when someone doesn't release a new recording, accompanied by breathless press. They're like a trendy bar that (infuriatingly) keeps staying trendy. Yes, I'm suspicious of the Goldbergs' popularity. Classical Music is not really supposed to be that popular. I worried for years that I would be seduced into playing them, and would become like all the others—besotted, cultish—and that is exactly what happened. I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg.

When NPR asked me to do these Goldberg blog posts, I cleverly used the denial portion of my brain to forget my dread. Words seem to bounce off the notes of the Goldbergs, like they're impregnable. If there's anything more terrifying than adding another recording to the existing legacy, it's the idea of adding even one more word to the quivering mass of adulatory Goldberg verbiage.

The Goldbergs are a fool's errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time.

Then something came over me: an urge to be terrible. I'd like to really let loose on the Goldbergs, to make the case against them, to discuss why they're not worth discussing.

The first flaw of this masterpiece is a doozy. The piece is eighty minutes long, and mostly in G major. Just think about that for a minute. Then (without a bathroom break) think very similar thoughts for 79 more minutes, winding around the same basic themes, and then you will have some idea of what it's like to experience—you might even say survive—the Goldbergs. Let's not delude ourselves. No amount of artistry and inspiration (sorry Glenn, not even you) can make you forget that you are hearing 80 minutes of G major; it's like trying not to notice Mount Everest. Not only is it G major, but it is always, (nauseatingly?) the same sequence of harmonies within G major. This is more than a compositional roadblock; it's essentially a recipe for monotony and failure. The Goldbergs are a fool's errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time.

A Great Act Of One-Upmanship Is Born

All of which is to say that the Goldbergs are genetically predisposed to be boring, and they cannot totally elude the trap set for them by their premise. To be fair, Bach charges at this fact with full foreknowledge, even brazenly. He says, in effect, yes this is bound to be boring but I am going to be so masterful that you will be in awe and not care even if you will be bored.

Brief musicological diversion: I feel pretty strongly encouraged by various scholars (who have presumably done their homework) that Bach was aware of a set of variations by Handel written some decades earlier, published in 1733. It so happens—by a twist of fate—that these variations are on the same first eight bass notes as the Goldbergs, and moreover that the last variation of the 62 (!) is a kind of canon, sort of a primitive harbinger of the amazing canons of the Goldbergs, etc. etc., blah blah blah. The upshot being: if you ever want to suffer an incredibly tedious time, if you want to be impelled to stick a fork in your brain just to stop the endless flood of mundanity, listen to Handel's 62 Variations.

This made me fantasize a music-historical moment. The postal coach arrives; a big pile of music comes from wherever. Bach sits down after a hearty meal to play through these new Handel variations, fresh off the printing press. I imagine at first a sour look, perhaps a frown of disbelieving distaste, but as he plays through the fortieth uninspired variation this look morphs into a grin, maybe even a smirk; perhaps even at this moment the idea for the world's greatest act of one-upmanship is born. Bach wonders: yes, this is hellaciously monotonous, but what if I multiply these eight notes by four, 8 x 8 x 8 x 8, making 32 total, creating a larger symmetry, giving the harmony some space to breathe? And then what if I write some real canons, not this pathetic excuse?

I know everyone discusses the Goldbergs as if born from the mind of God in some beautiful Olympian harmony-paradise. But here's another way to frame it: Bach set out to write something less boring than one of the most boring pieces ever written. And he succeeded. If the Handel Variations are Last Year at Marienbad, the Goldbergs are Die Hard.

A Desert Of Happiness

The second major flaw in the Goldbergs is how jolly they are. Joy is the default mode of the work, hand in hand with G major. Just look at the bouncy, boisterous, leaping first variation, with its clever crossing of hands. Then (why not) head over to the leaping eighth variation, with the hands arpeggiating over each other, and its bouncy boisterous triads, and the wonderful eleventh variation, in which (shockingly!) the hands charmingly criss-cross and leap, or number fourteen ... You get the idea. There is a surfeit of virtuosic, humorous leaping. Someone could easily fall asleep 20 minutes in, have a solid 50 minute nap (certainly enough to wake refreshed), and then, upon awakening, you might feel it sounds more or less the same. You might be confused, wonder if you'd slept at all! That's ridiculous, you say; but you know, it could happen.

Yes, Bach did insert three minor-key variations in order to change up the mood. But three out of thirty is not many—not enough. The Goldbergs are a desert of happiness with oases of sadness: we drink thirstily at all-too-rare darkness. People often say their favorite variation is number 25, the last minor variation, the darkest, the so-called "black pearl." But number 25 is a pretty serious exception. What they're saying is that their favorite part of the piece is the part that's not really like the piece. (There should be a name for this phenomenon, for instance people who say they love Wagner, but mostly sleep through his long recitatives and developments, in fact 95% of the opera, but wake up for the big tunes, the orchestral highlights).

Bach takes us out of this darkest place with a blaze of light, five variations each more ecstatic than the last. How much happier am I supposed to get? The capstone of these is the Quodlibet, with its good humor and generosity of spirit, reenacting (so they say) Bach family parties where they would mash up various tunes, dazzle each other with contrapuntal mastery. Now, the words of the tunes are perhaps jokes, references that we can probably no longer get; everyone has their own idea what it all means. This lost joke which no one agrees about is the last laughing straw for me. Yes, the Goldbergs smile prismatically, a million smiles, from madcap pranks to blissful serenity—but after a while still I wonder: What are you smiling about anyway? A seventy minute smile is unseemly: it breeds suspicion.

Annoyingly Unimpeachable

It would perhaps be fine that the Goldbergs are so joyful, if only—and this is the big third flaw—they weren't also so annoyingly unimpeachable. Just the theme, for instance: a favorite inflection of mine, the way Bach gently moves into E minor at the beginning of the second half. It's so ideal and satisfying, the way he uses E minor as a melancholy foil to the prevailing G major, and having led us into it, subtly and affectingly leads us up out of it. Also (still just talking about the theme, without even moving on to the perfections of the next 77 minutes), the way the descending first four generative bass notes (G, F-sharp, E, D) are reflected or mirrored at the end of each phrase in the right hand, with a descending five note idea. It is damned subtle: the connection is made not at the beginning of each melodic phrase, but at the end; not the four notes, but five. And those five or four descending notes return marvelously, transformed, in the eliding gliding chain of the theme's conclusion: a connection that is profound but not obvious, just the perfect balance of cohesion and variety.

But this is a charge that can be leveled at Bach generally: being too excellent. A reviewer at a recital I played (Ives' first Sonata and the Goldbergs) complained that he wished Bach would have let himself be more Ivesian, thrown in some wrong notes, let himself go. Ha, take that, Johann Sebastian! The Kalamazoo press just totally trashed you! I often talk about Bach as a great humanist, as having an empathy for the whole range of human emotion. (Rather than the cerebral, fugal stereotype.) I love the way his music seems to look down on the whole human deal, but not condescendingly, with (now I'm letting myself rhapsodize subjectively) a kind of benevolent understanding. He does not look down bitterly (like Shostakovich, for instance), saying look at this terrible empty comedy of human emotion. Nor is he himself the emoter, like Beethoven; but he is not distanced, either. He has hit a sweet spot. Perhaps the most serious complaint you could make about Bach is that he has every quality of humanity except imperfection.

They Don't Need A Life Coach

Fourthly, the Goldbergs have the unfortunate quality of being—a particular bugbear of mine—incredibly neat and organized. They don't need a life coach, their closets are immaculate. Every third variation is a canon, and these are organized in ascending order by interval. The theme is set up symmetrically, 16/16, in a set of perfectly balancing questions-and-answers. And the thirty-two bars of the theme, for good measure, correspond to the thirty-two sections of the Goldbergs (30 variations plus framing theme on either side). Bach loves connecting the micro and macrocosm; he even creates a kind of hinge in the middle, a "false ending" after the 15th variation, and a re-beginning with a French Overture, to mirror on a large scale the binary symmetries of the theme.

Preternaturally happy, cheerful, perfect, organized, clean, boring, popular: I guess the case I'm making is that the Goldbergs are the Martha Stewart of Variations. And like Martha Stewart, you don't totally absolutely mind if they end up going off for a little while to a very clean and nice prison (sorry Martha, I'm just following the metaphor, I don't really mean it) so you don't have to see them being perfectly organized all the time, making a mockery of your unclean life. Maybe a show of hands: who would like a short moratorium on performances or recordings of the Goldbergs, so we could all hear it freshly again? Who will be the first pianist to unilaterally disarm? (Not me!)

Let's revise the Martha Stewart metaphor. The Goldbergs are like a friend you have who always does everything right. This friend always answers his emails, keeps a clean house, has a kind word for everyone, behaves properly at concerts, writes thank you cards, grooms himself assiduously, knows how to tie a tie, never eats Burger King at 2 AM, and never ever writes silly blog posts saying he hates pieces he really loves. He's an example to the world. He's smiling at you over drinks, listening as always with benevolent patience, and you realize through your gritted hateful envious teeth that he is certainly not your enemy, and what would it hurt to admit, you wouldn't want to face life without him?

(Jeremy Denk joins us all week to explore the Goldberg Variations. Read the next essay.)

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Jeremy Denk