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Fourteen Canons on the First Eight Notes
of the Goldberg Ground (BWV 1087)

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Suggested Reading: Christoph Wolff. "The Handexemplar of the Goldberg Variations" Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) pp. 162-177.

Historical Background and Significance


Discovery of BWV 1087
In 1974 a published copy of the Goldberg Variations, first owned by Bach himself, was discovered in private possession in France. Accompanying the manuscript, in Bach's hand, there was attached a single page with fourteen canons on the first eight notes of the Goldberg ground. The discovery of the hitherto unknown manuscript was immediately hailed as the most important addition of a Bach source in recent decades. Of the fourteen canons, only numbers 11 and 13 had been known before 1974.

Significance of the Cycle
The fourteen canons are important for four reasons. Not only are they delightful to hear, but they represent a germinal stage of the mature variations that is highly instructive as to compositional processes that Bach may have used. Thirdly, the canon cycle bridges the gap between the canons of the Goldberg and the more esoteric canons of the Musical Offering of 1747. Finally, the enigmatic notations of the fourteen canons represent Bach's affinity for musical riddles and cryptographic symbols.

Signature Number?
It is a coincidence, perhaps, that there are fourteen canons in the Goldberg addendum. But to those who are cognizant of Bach's fascination with the number 14 as the sum of the ordinal values of the letters of his name (B+A+C+H), the number of canons in this cycle is more than coincidental. Bach's last major work, Art of the Fugue contains fourteen Contrapuncti, the last of which is the unfinished quadruple fugue in which the third subject is the BACH motive. If the number of canons can be understood to represent the composer's signature number, we might infer that Bach wished for the cycle of canons to represent, just as the Art of the Fugue represents, the last word on the subject.

Analysis of Each Canon
The first four canons of the cycle use the Goldberg ground as leader. While not the most interesting things to hear, from a theoretical perspective these canons are necessary inasmuch as Bach demonstrates in them the inherent contrapuntal possibilities of his soggetto, or "subject," by combining it with itself in four ways:

Notes

  1. It is likely that the "lord possessor" of the inscription has a double meaning. It obviously refers to the owner of the book (Fulda), but may also refer to the Lord God as well.

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