Teach Yourself to Play Bach’s Goldberg Variations

Teach Yourself to Play Bach’s Goldberg Variations

One of the great joys – and great challenges – of the piano and harpsichord literature is to learn Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  Literature about the variations abounds, including complex technical analyses of its composition; however, few books support performers with high school or college level instruction to learn the piece on their own initiative.  This blog shares my strategy for conquering the challenge that I developed by teaching myself.  It also offers editions, CDs and interactive resources to help you tackle the challenge!

Keyboardists long have admired the Goldberg Variations for Bach’s inventiveness at finding so much possibility, variety and expressiveness nascent within the very simple aria that defines its framework.  Rosalyn Tureck and Glenn Gould received their first great public recognition as a result of their mastery of these miniature pieces, and it is hard to imagine the landscape of Classical Music without Glenn Gould’s historic and beloved 1955 performance on a prepared piano.  Mr. Gould recorded the Goldbergs a second time in 1981 near the end of his life.  A State of Wonder, released by Sony, brings both performances together.  In preparation for both recordings, Mr. Gould used Ralph Kirkpatrick’s Schirmer Edition, which remains the most widely used performance edition of the Goldbergs. It features an excellent preface specifically written for performers that explains the architecture of the piece.  In addition to a superbly edited score, Kirpatrick offers light but very helpful fingering.  He offers “realized” ornamentation for passages that otherwise might be confusing or difficult, similar to that offered by Willard Palmer in his Alfred Masterwork Editions.  Carl Fischer recently published Mr. Gould’s own fingerings and performance score, edited and transcribed by Nicholas Hopkins.  It is accompanied by a facing urtext edition.  This unique edition is a quite useful accompaniment to the Kirkpatrick edition, because it is designed specifically for practice.  Mr. Gould often uses Kirpatrick’s suggestions for realizing the hand crosses that are simple to perform on two manuals but very tricky on a single manual.  Nicholas Hopkins provides an excellent performance oriented essay to help students outline the learning challenge and form a vision for the end goal.  One of his most important observations is Gould’s conception of an “Ur-tempo”, a fundamental pulse that should underlie all of the variations.  The concept is somewhat different than Kirpatrick’s direction that a fundamental tempo and registration pattern should provide the essential unifying elements of the piece.

In addition to the Kirkpatrick and Gould editions, I recommend Rudolf Steglich’s edition published by Henle and fingered by Hans-Martin Theopold.  The edition is the most crisply engraved and easiest-to-read performing edition available.  The fingering is excellent.  Because I first encountered the Goldbergs with the Kirpatrick score, I transferred Theopold’s fingerings into the Kirpatrick edition.  The three editions combined together have helped me solve my major technical challenges, which generally result from 1) hand crossings and 2) melodic patterns that are best performed using historical/pre-modern fingerings.

Although my experience in learning the Goldbergs has been based in the Schirmer, Henle and Fischer editions, Barenreiter’s Urtext edition prepared by Christoph Wolff is available with superb fingering suggested by Ragna Schirmer.  You can hear her play it in her recording for Berlin Classics.  Jeremy Denk uses the Barenreiter edition in his informative DVD about the Goldberg Variations that accompanies his widely admired CD performance.  For students and listeners who prefer an interactive alternative to reading, Mr. Denk is an engaging speaker who effectively demonstrates his ideas at the keyboard during the discussion.

Among the many recordings of the Goldberg Variations, the most valuable to me are those by Ralph Kirkpatrick (Archiv), Pierre Hantaï (Naïve), Glen Gould (Sony) and Murray Perahia (Sony).  The Kirkpatrick performance is valuable to both harpsichordists and pianists because performers can hear a primary study edition performed by its editor.  Although many harpsichordists who trained in the 1960s and 1970s love the Gustav Leonardt recording, which still defines the “classic” Early Music approach to harpsichord playing, Pierre Hantaï’s recording is breathtaking and shows how captivating the Goldbergs are when played on the harpsichord.  Murray Perahia’s recording is the general favorite among pianists.  The piano is luminous and the playing is both faithful to the text and inspired.  Angela Hewitt’s beautiful recording of the Goldbergs is performed very much in the baroque spirit.  Her performance is faithful to the text, but she varies the repeats which preserves interest and fulfills the baroque era’s expectation that performers demonstrate their improvisational creativity while realizing the music.  (n.b.  Miss Hewitt uses a Fazioli piano that has a fourth pedal.  You will not be able to reproduce that effect without a similar piano!  This being said, Miss Hewitt demonstrates what mesmerizing piano playing means and how to listen deeply to your own playing.)

As you explore the excellent tools available for studying the Goldbergs, play with them and use them to invent your own ways of keeping your interest fresh during the very long learning period.  The Goldbergs are structured on canonic melodies and figured basses.  Sing the bass parts so that you know them well.  In addition to the binary structure that defines each variation, the whole ensemble is based upon groups of three short pieces that end in a canon.  The canons increase by one interval from from the second (Var. 3) to the ninth (Var. 27).  Learn the canons first, because they are the most intellectually challenging pieces and will take the longest to memorize.  Once you learn them well, perform them as a “mini-Goldberg”, beginning with theme, followed by the 9 canons, the Quodlibet at the 10th (Var. 30) and end with the signature theme.

While learning the canons, become very familiar with Variation 16, the Overture that opens the second half of the piece.  This piece is heavily ornamented and the Kirkpatrick edition offers the best guide available to students for literal realization.  Harpsichordists will be able to realize the trills as suggested.  Pianists will need to simplify them, performing fewer trills per beat because of the piano’s heavier action.  The Kirkpatrick and Perahia recordings will help the performer understand the form of the piece and the musical concepts it communicates.

The most technically challenging pieces are the Arabesques, typically the second variation in the tripartite set.  Harpsichordists will find them delightful and audiences will be visually engaged with the complicated hand crossing motion that is “wonderful” to behold.  Pianists will describe the wonder differently!  Kirkpatrick and Gould are very helpful in working through this challenge which 19th C. pianists considered “impossible”.  The cross-hands variations are possible on the piano, but they require the utmost precision, neat curled fingers and a very clear vision of the passage in mind.  Motor memory is not enough.  Glenn Gould dealt with the challenge by not playing the notes where the hands cross.  His edition if filled with half rests that may look confusing on the page but they make kinaesthetic sense and prevent clunky missed notes or oddly missing melody lines.

Some of the most delightful pieces are the “occasional” pieces that make up the first variation within a tripartite set.  Along with the famous Overture (Var. 16), there is a Fughetta (Var. 10), Alla breve (Var. 22), a lively exploration of Alberti bass (Var. 19), a trill exercise that sounds like a plane taking off (Var. 28) and the famous “Black Pearl” (Var. 25) with which Gustav Leonhardt ended his concerts.  These “occasional” pieces provide the spice of the overall composition.  They give you a push to start the next trilogy and keep the audience engaged.  Use them at the end of your practice as refreshment.  Most of them are relatively easy to learn and they memorize fairly quickly.  The exception is the Black Pearl, which will take the longest to memorize of all of the variations because it is an endless chromatic modulation.

After memorizing the pieces, keep the pieces fresh by putting 30 slips of paper numbered 1-30 in a fish bowl.  Keep the bowl by your instrument and pull out a number.  The gimmick is an effective party trick, but it also keeps the performer’s mind engaged and imagination flexible.  You will see how each of the pieces relates to the underlying pulse, which will help you keep the whole framework in perspective.

As you gain strength to concentrate on the variations over a longer period of time, begin to practice the pieces as three-part cells and then play them within context of the proper half of the piece’s architecture that they inhabit.  Learn Var. 1-3 “cold” to allow yourself the necessary time, space and confidence to settle into the Goldbergs when you perform them.  Likewise, learn Var. 25-30 “cold” so that you can perform them by sheer muscle memory.  The Goldbergs require 45 minutes to play without repeats.  By the time you encounter Var. 25, your endurance will be tested, and your concentration must overcome an enervating chromatic challenge before undergoing the final 10 minutes of the piece.  Deep familiarity and comfort with the last six variations will help you sustain the momentum so that you can end strong, confident and “with dignity”.

As with any great work of art, the Goldbergs are not a “one-time” experience.  They are a lifetime encounter.  Although they require continual practice to keep them performance-ready, continue to think about them when you move to new goals.  The fishbowl idea will help you keep them on the back-burner without consuming your practice time.  Over time, you will find that your musical understanding of the piece will grow as you grow as a musician.  Learning the Goldbergs is a long-term labor of love for virtually everyone, but one of the rewards of the commitment is that you can stay in touch with them continually because the individual pieces are very short.  You will find that your ability to hear and learn counterpoint will grow exponentially.  When you turn your attention to other Early Music or Classical period composers, the music will be much easier to comprehend and learn:  the challenge likely will be technical rather than intellectual.

Donald Beebe