The Goldberg Variations. Why?

Published by Jill Timmons on

These days, I am working on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. It has been on my bucket list for years, but life, projects, and all manner of things continually has put it to the side. It’s not as if you can do part of it. And then there is the issue of it being one of those mountain pieces. Glad you are in it, but truly grateful when it is completed. How I came to tackle this work is a vivid reminder about the power of synchronicity—Carl Jung’s a causal connection between two psychic or physical phenomena. 

In the summer of 2018, my dear friend and colleague, Ludovica Mosca, was visiting Oregon to perform on the Mt. Angel Abbey Bach Festival. Italian by birth, she is a Spanish citizen living in Barcelona, and by the way she speaks four languages fluently— really five if you count her long-standing scholarship and performance history of the keyboard works of J.S. Bach. We met some thirty years ago because we shared the same manager. Over the years we be- came fast friends, sharing in the luck to have been mentored by Marianne Marshall, director of Concert Promotional Services in Los Angeles. 

Fast forward to August of 2018. Ludovica and I got together after her spectacular piano recital at the Mt. Angel Abbey. We did our usual lightning fast “catch-up” in each other’s lives—joys, concerns, losses, music, performances, travel, family, and so forth. 2017 had been challenging in different ways for each of us. We were ruminating on the process of dealing with loss when she suddenly asked, “Do you play the Goldberg?” I said, “No, but I am picking away at it, not consistently, mind you. I would like to play it someday but . . .” She responded with, “Would you be willing to learn it? I have always wanted to dance the compendium of baroque dances embedded in this extraordinary work.” Did I mention that Ludovica is also a trained baroque dancer, even to the point of offering me her facsimile charts of dances done in the court of Louis XIV (1638–1715)!? Now before I lose you on this, remember that the Sun King was a superb dancer, as was J.S. Bach! 

Dance was an integral part of French court life and for any courtier hoping for a political career in Louis XIV’s court, a personal dance master/instructor was an essential. The intricacies and complexities of dance in the court are beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say that one’s political career, position in court, and the pecking order amongst aristocrats depended upon fancy footwork! 

The G-berg these days is on a pedestal, but back then, it was intricately bound to the popular baroque dance repertoire embedded in a court ball: Menuet, Gigue, Courante, Passepied, Bourrée, Loure, Sarabande, Allemande, Gavotte, and many others. We find them in evidence throughout Bach’s larger keyboard works such as the Partitas, English Suites, and French Suites. Bach himself was a fine dancer and personally knew three dance masters from the court of Louis XIV.

So back to the study of the Goldberg. I have been working away—a dance galley slave of sorts. There are so many technical conundrums, just the right tempo for a particular dance, the dreaded “two keyboards” to grapple with while I have only one on the modern piano, and the endless drilling for fluency.

The G-berg, on the modern piano, is a transcription, but even that is its own journey. I have fully five separate editions plus my own edits. What a perfect reminder for the need for flexibility in life and figuring out new ways of doing things! Trust me, I have had to redo my fingering choices more times than I care to admit! 

The surprise of this musical journey, however, is that it has helped me to process a recent significant loss. It’s big enough to contain deep sorrow. It has given me an awe- inspiring focal point, a benchmark of joy, a way of reorganizing myself. Being in Bach’s presence is humbling and truly breathtaking. That may sound trite given that we all recognize his place in Western European Art Music. But in diving into this extraordinary work, I have been reminded again about his genius, his invention, his infectious joie de vivre, and the magnificent order of things. The G-berg is resplendent with all manner of dance—one after another, dances that we can all do. Being in Bach’s world does connect you with something great than self, and offers a juicy full-bodied celebration of life. 

My guess is that all of us in OMTA have a bucket list of works we would like to learn— those works that speak to the heart of who we are, our reason for making music, our passion for certain composers and times. It doesn’t have to be the Liszt Sonata or the Emperor Piano Concerto (although it could be . . . ). The goal is to stretch, and to answer to the heart of a personal bucket list. If not now, when? Why not put your “best foot forward?” 

So next September, Ludovica and I are offering this luminous work as the opening concert for Piano Arts in Netarts, a weekend piano festival here on the Oregon coast (September 5–8). The performance space? The Netarts/Oceanside Firehouse! With the support of Classic Pianos and the Yamaha Corporation, Ludovica and I will play and dance the G-berg in its entirety. 

I’d like to think that Bach would be pleased to have his joyous and visceral work offered to the diverse audience of this small coastal community; where there are more cows than people! 

Reprint with permission from the Oregon Musician(March Issue, 2019)