Notes 59.2 (2002) 346-348
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Bach: The Goldberg Variations. By Peter Williams. (Cambridge Music Handbooks.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. [vi, 112 p. ISBN 0-521-80735-2. $50 (hbk.); ISBN 0-521-00193-5. $19 (pbk.).] Music examples, bibliography, index.
Peter Williams's expertise with the music of Bach and his time is put to excellent use in this concise guide to Bach's Goldberg Variations. The latest of the Cambridge Music Handbooks, this study explores not only the music but its historical significance and reception, in prose that is clear, pithy, and to the point. Most importantly, one gets from this little volume a detailed understanding of what makes this familiar masterwork so unusual. In describing it, Williams dispels myths about the work, examines each movement in some detail, and questions well-ingrained performance habits—all in the space of barely one hundred pages! [End Page 346]
An introduction briskly explains how the Aria with Diverse Variations (as the original title page says) acquired both its more popular name and how it came to be regarded as part IV of Bach's Clavierübung. Pianists and harpsichordists especially will appreciate Williams's consideration of harpsichords from the Dresden builder J. H. Gräbner, which are now being copied by leading builders, as historically appropriate vehicles for performance of the work.
The "background and genesis" chapter reviews what is known about not only the Goldberg Variations but also the other three volumes of the Clavierübung. A chapter on "overall shape" produces various models and precedents for the Goldberg bass line, the various genre pieces in the collection, and its virtuosic keyboard techniques. Observing that "it does seem to be the nature of the Goldberg to inspire a range of hypotheses" (p. 48), Williams supplies a number of his own, most of which are sensible and even a little cautious. Keyboard players will find much to think about here, although Williams is careful not to inject too much of his own thinking on performance practice.
In the central chapter, Williams proves as satisfying—but also as elusive—as his subject. The primary concerns of his succinct discussions of the individual movements are with Affekt or topic, counterpoint, motivic manipulation, and performance. Addressing each variation in turn, Williams makes many interesting connections and conjectures, most of which are delivered (as is the author's habit) as questions. His witty commentary often identifies something about the movement that might otherwise be difficult to articulate: about variation 3, for example, he writes that "while its bass certainly helps create a piece of harpsichord dance-music ... it goes on rumbling about to no great purpose" (p. 58).
Occasionally, good ideas are left unsupported, perhaps for reasons of brevity: the excellent section on variation 25, though it illustrates the obvious chromatic fourths that occur in prolongation in the bass (mm. 1-4) and elsewhere in the movement, overlooks the fourths in diminution in the tenor part from the outset. Similarly, in discussing variation 30 (the Quodlibet), Williams usefully points out similarities with Girolamo Frescobaldi's Bergamasca without reminding the reader of the earlier composer's memorable—and potentially provocative, if the suggestion of influence is correct—observation that "whoever plays the Bergamasca learns not a little" (Girolamo Frescobaldi, Fiori Musicali [Venice: Appresso Alessandro Vincenti, 1635]; reprint, Orgel- und Klavierwerke, vol. 5 [Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1954]: 61). Inevitably in a work of such limited scope, when he needs to summarize and move on, Williams takes refuge in the uniqueness of Bach's art; and though the many unanswered questions may leave readers wanting more, his deft commentaries are curiously well attuned to Bach's clever variations.
A brief chapter on reception rounds off this little handbook with a history of the work's publication and its creative reinterpretation by, among others, Beethoven in his Diabelli Variations (the latter is the subject of an important 1985 study by Martin Zenck, "'Bach der Progressive.' Die Golberg-Variationen in der Perspektive von Beethovens Diabelli-Variations," Musik-Konzepte 42 : 29-92). Here as elsewhere, Williams is willing to entertain readings that go...