The eminent harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick, writes: "However much it is an act of impudence thus to discuss something which is far too profound and complex to be grasped in words, it seems necessary in order to explain all that has been said before, to confess some of the feelings which inevitably come with the playing of this music." The music about which Kirkpatrick writes is the set of variations commissioned of Johann Sebastian Bach by Dresden's Count Von Keyserlingk for his court harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg.
It seems that the Count, an insomniac, had asked Bach to compose something that might occupy his restless nights. For his trouble, Bach was rewarded with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d'or. Keyserlingk was so pleased that he thereafter referred to Bach's music as "my variations," but history has remembered "Keyserlingk's Variations" by the name of his harpsichordist: Goldberg.
The Goldberg Variations begin with an Aria Bach had composed in 1725, possibly for his wife This Aria appears in Anna Magdalena's Notebook, where it is written in her own hand. The Sarabande-like Aria becomes theme for a set of 30 variations to follow.
Analysis of Each Canon
Canon 1: canone all' Unisuono Structurally, the Goldberg Variations demonstrate the Baroque ideal of balance and internal coherence. Every third variation is a canon, of which this is the first. Canone all' Unisuono means "canon at the unison," implying that the canon leader and follower begin on the same pitch. This title suggests that subsequent canons might use other intervals as indeed they do.
Canon 2: canone all' Seconda In the second canon, the follower chases the leader but seems never to catch up. This is because the follower commences each phrase a step higher than the leader--canone all' Seconda. Kirkpatrick describes this canon as having "an almost nostalgic tenderness."
Canon 3: canone alla Terza Canone alla Terza means "canon at the third." Here the leader begins on the pitch "B" while the follower begins a third lower, on "G." Each variation divisible by three (except No. 30) is a canon. The quotient becomes the interval between leader and follower. Such a mathematical conception makes the Goldberg Variations unique in music literature.
Canon 4: canone alla Quarta It is difficult to recognize the canone alla Quarta as a canon at all. Not only does the follower begin a perfect 4th lower than the leader, but it moves each of its intervals in the opposite direction: a moto contrario. In the "B" section, the leader and follower exchange positions; instead of the high voice leading (with the follower down a 4th), the middle voice leads (with the follower UP a 4th). This balancing of opposing registers and melodic contours represents a Bachian fondness for what I call "back 'n forth." The fundamental bass is clearly heard in the triple articulations of the lowest voice.
Canon 5: canone alla Quinta Like the canon at the fourth, this Canone alla Quinta is in contrary motion. This time, however, the interval separating leader and follower is a fifth. That Bach could have used a compositional procedure so abstruse to produce something so musical is an evidence of his genius. Minor mode, for the first time in the Goldberg Variations, lends a dark and tragic aura. Each of the variations is centered in G, but three of them are in minor rather than major. Of the two other minor mode variations, No. 21 is a canon, and No. 25 is not. The constant G major/minor tonality does not tire the ear because each variation also modulates to related keys (typically D-major and e-minor), providing a variety of tonal centers.
Canon 6: alla marcia Variation 18, "in a marching style," has the distinction of being the canon in which the follower comes closest to "catching" the leader. The time interval separating the two is one beat: the pitch interval, a sixth.
In theme and variation one expects the soprano to become the object of variation. This does not happen in the Goldbergs. Instead, Bach follows an Italian model known as ruggiero which varies the bass instead. Bach's ruggiero consists of eight phrases with every other phrase ended by the same ground bass but in different keys. Thus Bach's ruggiero is very nearly a chaconne (ostinato form in which the repeated element is a chord progression rather than a melody). The bass does not repeat verbatim, but its implied harmonies are always intact. If the bass had repeated exactly, the cycle might have been called a passacaglia--the favorite Baroque cousin of theme and variation. This similarity to the ground bass forms of chaconne and passacaglia led Albert Schweitzer to call the Goldberg Variations "a passacaglia worked out in chiaroscuro." There is nothing quite like it in all of music literature.
Canon 7: canone alla Settima Filling in the ruggiero by five descending semitones (lamento bass), the seventh canon weaves its tapestry of counterpoint in what may be the most evocative melody of the Goldberg Variations. This Canone alla Settima is the second of three variations to be set in minor mode (another Trinitarian symbol...perhaps). The follower imitates the leader at the interval of a seventh.
Canon 8: canone alla Ottava After the rollicking exuberance of the variation that precedes it (No. 23), the canon at the octave rocks the listener in a gentle three beats per measure, each beat divided into three parts.
Canon 9: canone alla Nona The cycle closes with a sprightly variation in which leader and follower imitate each other at the ninth. The figure "spun out" in this canon is characterized by running sixteenth notes punctuated by expressive leaps of a sixth (an interval of which Bach seems to have been especially fond). For the first time the canon is abandoned by its ruggiero (having heard the bass theme many times before, our minds eagerly fill it in). Whereas the leader in part "A" is the low voice, the leader in part "B" is the high. Notice how the leader in part "B" is nearly the melodic inversion of part "A" (another example of "back 'n forth").