The Goldbergs, insular and obsessed, have all the failings of classical music in general. The piece is a text reflecting on itself, satisfied in its own world, suggesting that everything you would ever want to know is contained within. The variations (by definition music about music) are subject to countless insider discussions in the outer world, to comparisons of recordings like heavyweight bouts, to that annoying word “definitive”. Despite this, Bach’s smile wins through. The piece is a lesson in many things, but primarily in wonder: the way that the tragic variations fuse seamlessly into the breathlessly comic, the way that simple scales become energy, joy, enthusiasm, the celebration of the most fundamental elements of music. This is the kind of beatific happiness that Beethoven eventually tried to attain, after the heroic happiness of the middle period. The last movements of Beethoven’s Op 109 and Op 111 invoke the Goldbergs, and represent a joy beyond achievement.Jeremy Denk, “Bach’s Goldberg Variations caused me misery – but I still can’t get enough”, The Guardian (7 November 2013)
“If I decide to be an idiot, then I’ll be an idiot on my own accord.”Johann Sebastian Bach
In those two quotes lies the lot of the musician who has decided to take on one of the greatest pieces of Western music ever written. Especially if one chooses to take on the arrangement for the string trio.
Unlike Jeremy Denk (and Bach), I’m not a pianist. Now, many people say that they “aren’t pianists”, even if they do have decent skills on the instrument, as a way of being modest. But I, on the other hand, absolutely do not. I have zero piano skills. I was able to fake my way through keyboard harmony in undergrad. Thankfully I didn’t go to a conservatory, which would have required me to have met a keyboard proficiency requirement. I do wish I could play the piano, but I’m still hard at work trying to play the viola properly! So, with this complete lack of understanding of the keyboard – and its challenges and capabilities – to listen to a great pianist performing the Goldberg Variations is mind boggling. That’s bad enough. At least as a pianist you have only yourself to contend with in interpreting this grand composition of an Aria and thirty variations. What if you had three pianists, each playing a voice with one hand, all clustered around the keyboard? That’s sort of what it’s like to work on this piece with a string trio. Before you assume that I think this is a fool’s errand, I’ll assuage your doubts by saying that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but also one of the most profound and rewarding projects I’ve ever done.
I spent several days this past week at a wonderful vacation home on the beach in Manzanita taking part in an intensive rehearsal retreat to take the first steps in breaking down and building back up again this incredible work.
One of the great challenges of the Variations is finding the distinct character of each one. They do range, as Denk says above, “from tragic to breathlessly comic”, and they can each take from 30 seconds to five minutes to traverse, depending upon the repeat structure and how one intends to honor (or not) that structure. We’ve taken to finding one word descriptors to help guide our efforts. Some of those that we’ve arrived at so far: Exuberant (Var. I), Abashed (Var. II), Fleet (Var. V), and Ancient (Var. IX), among many others. It’s a good exercise, and one that viola students of Karen Tuttle would be quite familiar with.
Having a different instrument on each voice, or sometimes with different instruments taking parts of a single voice’s part, presents its own problem that the different players bring different ideas to the same voice – but this is also the reason that the arrangement is so brilliant. We’re doing the arrangement by the eminent Russian violinist Dmitri Sitkovetsky, which is, as far as I know, the first arrangement of its kind for this configuration of instruments. There is also a string orchestra version.
This coming weekend, I’ll be taking this enormous musical and emotional journey with my Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival colleagues – Artistic directors cellist Leo Eguchi, and violinist Sasha Callahan – in the phenomenal acoustic of the barrel cave of J. Christopher Wines. It’s a fantastic place to hear music, and the wine will be fantastic as well (tastings for two wines – each paired with the music of the program – are included in the ticket price). The first half consists of two works by young composers on the rise, Caroline Shaw (Limestone and Felt for viola and cello) and Missy Mazzoli (Lies You Can Believe In for string trio). I hope you can join us!