Passion and Joy: The Masterpieces of J.S. Bach Week Three: Great Keyboard Works
Italian Concerto This three movement work illustrates Khalil Gibran's quote, " The deeper sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain". Inspired by the violin concertos of Vivaldi, Bach crafts a work in which the keyboard player divided the music into "tutti" passages that are meant to illustrate the orchestra and "solo" passages that evoke a virtuoso violinist. After the grand and cheerful Allegro, the second movement (andante) gives way to utter despair. Listen for the funeral procession and tolling church bells in the bass while the right hand offers a cry from the heart, spinning out its unbounded grief in an aria replete with embellishments and unexpected dissonance. After the tragedy of this d minor movement, the following Presto is a complete shock: utter, unbridled exuberance in its return to F Major, with a triumphant, toe-tapping conclusion.
Partita No.1 in Bb Major Bach's first self-published works (his "Opus 1" if you will) was dedicated to his friend, patron and former employer, Prince Leopold of Cothen. This is a grand keyboard suite, opening with a flowing and elegant Praeludium which gives way to a series of stylized dances: a gently babbling Allemande, an energetic and even rambunctious Courante, a slow and romantic Sarabande, two delicate and graceful Minuets and a delightfully playful Giga.
"Goldberg" Variations Named for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the harpsichord student of one of Bach's children, this piece was requested by Count Keyserling, an aristocrat troubled with restless sleep patterns and midnight anxieties. He was hoping for a set of pieces that would soothe his weary soul. He got that- and so much more. This set of Aria+ 30 variations+ returning Aria is a mind-boggling collection of beauty, form and symbolism. Built on an unchanging 32 measure bass pattern, each variation unfolds with ever increasing daring and creativity. Bach's use of mathematical structure has never been more evident: the variations are grouped in 10 set of trinities: character piece, technical arabesque, canon. Each canon begins on a successive note (Canon starts on the unison; Canon 2 on the 2nd, etc) until we arrive at the Quodlibet, a made-up dance that combines two very secular, even silly, folk songs into a new configuration that sounds like a sublime hymn. It is as if Bach was once again was stretching his arms wide to hold and bless the entire range of human experience. The return to the opening aria is a moment of profound spiritual revelation, when we (in the words of T.S Eliot) " arrive where we started and know the place for the first time" . This is one of the most difficult and demanding of keyboard works. For many people, the quirky, eccentric and brilliant pianist Glenn Gould "owns" this piece. It is fascinating to compare his debut recording of this piece in 1955 with his re-recording of the work in 1981, mere months before he died. Listen to both versions side-by -side on youtube to have a glimpse of how the same piece (even performed by the same artist!) can be so significantly different: tempos, phrasing and dynamics are in marked contrast to one another.