Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey.
Without it you wouldn’t have been on the road.
It has nothing more to give you.

And if you found it poor, Ithaca did not fail you.
Having become so wise, so experienced,
You now realize what an Ithaca means.

Constantine Cavafy, Ithaca


The monumental work”Goldberg Variations” of J.S.Bach is considered as one of the greatest musical compositions of all time, and surely one of the most demanding pieces of the piano repertoire in terms of interpretation and virtuosity:

- The need for a multi-level interpretation of the complex polyphonic forms,

- The obligation for a unifying interpretative line, which -although the work is divided in two arias and 30 variations- will permeate it throughout and will guide the listener safely, deterministically to the aria of the end,

- The inherent demands for a special sound quality because of the fact that the work was originally written for a harpsichord with 2 manuals,

- The great virtuosity difficulties (leaps, hand-crossing passages, etc.) deriving from the fact that, in many of the variations, the original two keyboards (manuals) of the harpsichord are replaced by the one keyboard of the modern grand-piano,

certainly make it one of the almost inaccessible summits of the art of piano-playing!

A few words about about the work:

The “Aria mit verschiedenen Veraenderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen” (Aria with diverse Variations for Harpsichord with 2 Manuals) constitutes the fourth and last part (publication date 1741-42) of Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental work Clavierubung (Keyboard Instrument Practice), a term borrowed from his Leipzig predecessor, Cantor and Music Director Johann Kuhnau.

The first three parts had already been published:

1. Clavierubung I, comprising the 6 partitas for solo harpsichord with one manual.
2. Clavierubung II, including the Italian Concerto and the French Ouverture for harpsichord with two manuals.
3. Clavierubung III, containing works for organ: 21 Preludes, 4 Duets and a Prelude and Fugue.

There are a few scenarios but no conclusive evidence regarding the date and circumstances of the composition of this work. For some time it was thought that it had been conceived during the years 1720-30, because the Aria was entered as an independent composition, transcribed by Anna Magdalena, in the second “Notebook for Keyboard Instrument” (2tes Clavierbuchlein, 1725). However, graphological studies of the changes in Anna Magdalena’s handwriting over time have shown that the piece was copied after 1739, on blank pages of the “Notebook”!

This removed all doubt regarding authorship of the Aria: Bach borrowed the basic elements of the bass line from an early 17th century soggetto , which we also encounter in Canons BWV 1087. Around 1738-40, this soggetto was elaborated and extended considerably to form the 32-bar bass of the Aria.

Until quite recently it was widely believed that the work had been commissioned by Count Hermann Carl Reichsgraf von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the court of the Elector of Saxony, on the basis of the account in Bach’s earliest biography (1802) by Johann Nikolaus Forkel (1749-1818), one of the founders of musicology: “…The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights… and rewarded him with a golden goblet containing 100 louis d’or…” Not only is there no evidence to support this story, but, according to Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, a number of considerations point against it:

1. It is highly unlikely that a commissioned work, and so handsomely paid too (the sum of 100 louis d’or seems exorbitantly large for the time), should not bear a formal dedication. This is most unusual for 18th century practices (and especially, for Bach’s scrupulously correct character).

2. It is also very unlikely that Bach should have had the undeniably gifted 13 year old Johann Gottlieb Goldberg in mind, while composing the sublime conclusion to his monumental work, the Clavierubung. Goldberg was probably Bach’s pupil between the years 1736-37 and was later appointed as harpsichordist to the household of Keyserlingk. It is possible, though, that, in passing through Dresden, Bach presented the Count with a signed copy of the first edition of the work, which may have given rise to Forkel’s report. Indeed there is clear proof that Bach stayed at the Count’s Dresden residence in November 1741.

The work stems from an Aria whose 32-bar bass forms the basis of the 30 variations that follow. This aria is used by the composer as a passacaglia, with only the melodic line of the bass reproduced in the variations, in which it is handled with great rhythmic freedom so as to provide harmonic support to such a rich variety of contrapuntal structures: 9 canons, one for each interval of the diatonic scale, two fughettas, polyphonic inventions and arabesques and, finally, a quodlibet , all combined into an organic whole in this masterpiece. As Glenn Gould aptly observes, “…the theme is not terminal but radial, the variations circumferential, not rectilinear, while the recurrent passacaille supplies the concentric focus for the orbit…”. One might have expected that, given that harmonic base, the set of variations would in fact have been an elaboration of thematic, melodic elements of the aria. Yet this is hardly the case: in the variations there is no reflection of the calmly philosophical mood and the melodious and highly ornamented soprano voice of the aria, to the point that, as the work progresses, one tends to forget it altogether, from a melodic point of view at least.

The variations are arranged into groups of three: a free-form, invention-like variation, a virtuosic arabesque, usually a duet, for harpsichord with two manuals, and finally a canon in which only the two upper parts function contrapuntally, with the bass in all cases (except for the last canon, at the ninth, where it is absent) freely treating the fundamental, generative melodic line of the bass of the aria. In the last group the canon is replaced by a quodlibet which includes, apart from the folk tune mentioned above, the song Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest, ruck her, ruck her, ruck her (I have not been with you for so long, come here, come here, come here ), while the form of the other two variations seems to anticipate Ludwig van Beethoven’s last period.

The Variations 1 to 15 form the first part of the work: the 15th Variation (2/4), is the first variation in the minor mode (G minor), the first melancholy “pause”, where Bach enters his direction with regard to tempo: “andante”.

In the second part the variations are also arranged into groups of three, where in the first “triplet”, in Variation 16 (2/2) we have an overture in the French style (described as an Ouverture by the composer), stating the composer’s intention to divide the work, with regard to form, in two parts.

The tragic quality of the 25th Variation (3/4), –”adagio” according to the composer’s direction and the third in the minor mode (the second was the 21 Variation (4/4), a canon at the seventh in G minor), with the exquisite chromatic passages, so modern in mode and form of composition — expresses a “dramatic finality”, thus bringing the two previous variations in G minor to a splendid climax, but also firmly defines the ones that are to follow, “the things to come”, with regard to content, character and style.

Variation 26 (18/16, on two manuals), with the wave-like ascending and descending successions of sextuplets of semi-quavers in one part and the saraband in the other (alternately), dissipates the sorrow of its predecessor, and, like a kind of “Jacob’s ladder”, rushes the listener up to the festive simplicity of the Quodlibet.

The canon at the ninth the last one – Variation 27, on two manuals (6/8) – in a light mood, leads to the last group of three Variations, the first 2 of which, Var 28 (3/4), on two manuals, and Var 29 (3/4), foreshadow, both in writing and form, the classical and romantic eras and the style of such composers as Beethoven and Brahms (see above).

Variation 30 (4/4), the four-part Quodlibet (see above), concludes this exploration through a projection of the contrast between the complex, elaborate and cerebral music that we have just heard and the instinctive simplicity, even naivety perhaps, of the two folk motifs.

Could it be that Bach wished in this way to convey a message about the true essence of life? To express an ideology defined by the final victory of the simplicity of the “poor in spirit” over the complexity of the works of the experts?

One thing is certain: the Quodlibet delights us with its humour and congeniality, it is “a kind of musical prank” as Rosalyn Tureck characteristically observes, giving the finishing touch to this elaborate musical edifice with a hearty, triumphant laugh.

The cycle is finally completed with the reappearance of the Aria (Aria da capo), a return to the source of all this. This return is no repeat, though, but a reappraisal of the archetype. So what we have here is a “wiser” Aria, fresh from the wonderful journey, as described in Cavafy’s poem, and promising, through its last appoggiatura, a new beginning, a resurrection.