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Gould's notes on Bach's Goldberg Variations

by Glenn Gould

These notes were included in the program for recital at Plateau Hall in Montréal, November 7, 1955 in which Gould played the Goldberg Variations.

The most casual acquaintance with this work – a first hearing, or a brief glance at the score – will manifest the baffling incongruity between the imposing dimensions of the variations and the unassuming Sarabande which conceived them.

We are accustomed to consider at least one of two prerequisites indispensable to an Air for variations, a theme with a melodic curve which veritably entreats ornamentation, or an harmonic basis, stripped to its fundamentals, pregnant with promise and capacity for exhaustive exploitation. Though there are abundant examples of the former procedure from the Renaissance to the present day, it flourishes through the theme-and-elaborative-variation concept of the rococo. The latter method, which, by stimulating linear inventiveness, suggests a certain analogy with the passacaille style of reiterated bass progression, is strikingly portrayed by Beethoven's 32 variations in C minor.

The present work utilises the Sarabande from Anna Magdalena Bach's notebook as a passacaille – that is, only its bass progression is duplicated in the variations. Indeed, this noble bass binds each variation with the inexorable assurance of its own inevitability. This structure possesses in its own right a completeness, a solidarity which suggests nothing of the urgent longing for fulfilment which is implicit in the traditionally terse entry of a chaconne statement.

One might justifiably expect that in view of the constancy the harmonic foundation of the principal pursuit of the variations would be the illumination of motivic facets within the melodic complex of the Aria theme. However, such is not the case, for the thematic substance, a docile but richly embellished soprano line, possesses an intrinsic homogeneity which bequeathes nothing to posterity and which, so far as motivic representation is concerned, is totally forgotten during the 30 variations. In short it is a singularly self-sufficient little air which seems to sun the patriarchal demeanour, to exhibit a bland unconcern about its issue, to remain totally uninquisitive as to its raison d'être.

Nothing could better demonstrate the aloof carriage of the Aria, than the precipitous outburst of Variation 1 which abruptly curtails the preceeding tranquillity. Such aggression is scarcely the attitude we associate with prefatory variations, which customarily embark with unfledged dependence on the theme, simulating the pose of their precursor and functioning with a modest opinion of their present capacity but a thorough optimism for future prospects.

With Variation 2 we have the first instance of the confluence of these juxtaposed qualities – that curious hybrid of clement composure and cogent command which typifies the virile ego of the Goldberg.

With Variation 3 begin the canons which subsequently occupy every third segment of the work. In the canons, the literal imitation is confined to the two upper voices, while the accompanying part, which is present in all but the final canon at the ninth, is left free to convert the tema del basso, in most cases at least, to a suitably acquiescent complement.

Nor is such intense contrapuntal preoccupation solely the property of the canonic variations. Many of those numbers of "independent Character" expand minute thematic cells into an elaborate linear texture. Since the Aria melody, as afore-mentioned, evades intercourse with the rest of the work, the individual variation voraciously consumes the potential of a motivic germ peculiar to it, thus exercising an entirely subjective aspect of the variation concept.

The great cycle concludes with that boisterous exhibition of Deutsche Freundlichkeit, the Quodlibet. Then, as though it could not longer suppress a smug smile at the progress of its progeny; the original Sarabande, anything but a dutiful parent, returns to us to bask in the reflected glory of an aria de capo.

It is no accident that the great cycle should conclude thus. Nor does the aria's return simply constitute a gesture of benign benediction. Rather is its suggestion of perpetuity indicative of the essential incorporeality of the Goldberg, symbolic of its rejection of embryonic inducement.

It is in a short music which observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, yet music in which there exists a fundamental coordinating intelligence which we labelled "ego". It has, then, unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.

– Glenn Gould

Program for a recital at Plateau Hall in Montréal, 1955

Program for recital at Plateau Hall in Montréal, November 7, 1955. Gould's notes on Bach's Goldberg Variations, which he played, were published in the program.

Source: Library and Archives Canada/Glenn Gould fonds/MUS 109-44,17,4
© Unknown. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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