The Goldberg Variations: Comparative Analysis of Glenn Gould’s “Aria” & First Variation (1955 vs. 1981)

Born in 1685 in Germany, Johann Sebastian Bach has been quoted as the master of counterpoint music. In its most general aspect, counterpoint involves the writing of musical lines that sound very different and move independently from each other but sound harmonious when played simultaneously. This musical style matured during the Renaissance and Common Practice Era, which spanned throughout the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods in (1600-1900). J.S. Bach was arguably the most regarded Harpsichordist, Organist, Violinist, and Violist who composed music during the Baroque Period, which spanned throughout the years (1600-1750). He was revered for his intellectual depth, technical command, and artistic beauty that permeated throughout his many composed pieces of music. The Baroque Period followed the Mediaeval Renaissance Era, which lasted through the years (1400-1600). Next, The Classical Era had blossomed, and spanned throughout the years (1730/50-1820).

Music from the Baroque Period was well versed in tonality. Commonly, “tonality” refers to a system or language of music in which specific hierarchical pitch relationships are based on a “key” center- the tonic triad. Another alluring piece of information is that the word “Baroque” comes from the Portuguese word “Barroco”, which means “misshapen pearl.” This is in fact,  a negative description of the incredibly ornate and ornamented music that was composed during this period.

The “Goldberg” Variations refer to the final series of Harpsichord repertoire that Bach had published under the title of Clavierübung in 1741. There is a very interesting story that comes along with Bach’s Variations, yet naturally, as time goes on, stories change, as do the facts. There was a very wealthy count that was in poor health due to chronic Insomnia. The count had a young Harpsichordist apprentice named Goldberg, whom he would take to have music lessons with Bach. The Count commissioned Bach to write a piece of music to help with his health and insomnia. Once composed, Goldberg would play them to help the count rest easily before he would fall asleep. The Goldberg Variations are often regarded as the most serious and ambitious composition ever written for Harpsichord, and the most important set of variations composed in the Baroque Era.

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In 1955, Canadian born Glenn Gould was signed to Colombia Records when he was a mere 22 years of age. When he walked into Colombia, all he desired was to make his big debut recording the Goldberg Variations. The producers sat him down at the piano and allowed him to release his incredible talents for the world to hear. To say the least, everyone in Colombia Records was shocked by the utter lucidity Gould had displayed behind the piano keys. No one had ever heard the Goldberg Variations played with such clarity, and they became one of the most important classical recordings of all time.

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Gould fell in love with the art of recording because he was an extremely self-critical individual with performance anxiety. As a result, he rarely would perform in front of people. At one point in his career, he predicted that people wouldn’t even be performing anymore due to the advent of recording technology. This prediction was a little steep, but in today’s day in age, recording has become incredibly essential to artist development.

“Aria” is a theme with 32 different variations, or short compositions based on the bass movement of the Aria. It is a sarabande, meaning that it is a dance in triple meter. The second and third beats of each measure are often tied, giving the dance a distinctive rhythm or altering quarter and eighth notes.  Aria is set in 3/4 time, and features a heavily ornamented melody. Again, this was the type of music the Baroque Period was known for. According to the French style of ornamentation, ornaments are suppose to be apart of the melody, though others disagreed.

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Gould’s 1955 recording of “Aria” demonstrated an undoubtable talent through the touch of his fingers. The piece begins with a sweet-tempered legato, as Gould stays relatively true to form. There is an incredible amount of clarity between each note played, allowing each tone to fully ring through. Aria is gently played, without much dynamic range or intensified articulation. The theme is melodically complex, with an ongoing vibe of tranquility, and harmonic completeness. While the Aria theme is rather docile in nature, Variation 1 breaks out with a sense of urgency. There is virtually no dynamic range, and each note is played with the same tonal intent and volume. There are no fermatas, crescendos, or decrescendos. Each note that is played holds the same amount of rapid significance. In this recording, Gould’s talents are demonstrated by his sense of showmanship. It’s as though he’s showing the world how quickly he can play, and with such fleeting precision, he became remarkably applauded.

Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations once more in 1981, just one year before his passing. These particular recordings were strikingly different, with more articulation, dynamic range, and thought-out touch behind each note struck. Aria was played with much more reflection, and in my opinion, Gould knew his life was coming to an end. Through his touch, you can hear the sentimentality behind each key. Even in his singing voice there is a sense of sadness, and contemplation. Notes are held longer, and there is less emphasis on adamant timing. Gould hangs on to plenty of fermatas, and uses his sustain pedal most tastefully. The piece is played very quietly, yet contains more of a gentle rise and fall in crescendos and decrescendos. This 1981 recording is extremely easy to get lost in, and time seems to fade away in the 3:05 it captivates your ears. In Variation 1, the fundamental tones are incredibly articulated while the rhythm in the right hand forces the emphasis on the second beat, giving rise to syncopation from bars 1 to 7. Instead of playing astonishingly fast, Gould focuses much more on the creative freedom of each note played in this variation. There is a sense of attitude where he chooses to accent the rhythm notes, and it’s almost a different piece compared to the 1955 recording.

This is the original studio video during which Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1981. Take note not only of his playing style, but of the height of his chair, and hunch of his back over the piano keys. He was also known to sing and hum along as he played, which helped put him into a musical trance.

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