Music for insomniac

Cellist Gemma Rosefield
Cellist Gemma Rosefield

MUSIC in the Round gets its spring season back on track with two concerts in the Crucible Studio next Wednesday.

The first, at lunchtime, takes in a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Ensemble 360 members Benjamin Nabarro (violin), Judith Busbridge (viola) and Gemma Rosefield (cello).

Yes, it is a keyboard work, for harpsichord, although regularly heard on piano, but here is encountered in a string trio transcription made in 1984 by famed Russian violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky.

Actually, of all Bach’s multiplicity of works, among the major ones it is the one most frequently transcribed or arranged for instrumental forces other than it was written for.

The ‘alternative versions’ are many and various, from Busoni’s bowdlerised reworking for piano to Jacques Loussier’s more faithful, not to say revelatory one for jazz trio.

Others include transcriptions for harp (two, one by Catrin Finch), solo guitar, guitar duo, string orchestra, synthesiser, chromatic button accordion, piano accordion, marimba, and string trio with electronics.

There are two or three versions for string trio and, in its not quite original form, seven different recordings by pianist Rosalyn Tureck.

Such is the fascination with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which with greater accuracy should appear as ‘Goldberg’ Variations as it’s a nickname.

One of the very few works (less than ten!) by the composer published in his lifetime, in 1741, the title page reads: “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals.

“Composed for connoisseurs for the refreshment of their spirits by Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Balthasar Schmid, Nuremberg, publisher.”

No mention of a Goldberg or a dedicatee.

The only source for the origins of the work appears to be an early biography of Bach in 1802 by Johann Nikolaus Forkel.

In it he recounts the tale of a former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stayed in Leipzig and brought with him a young keyboard player, Johann Gottleib Goldberg, “to have given musical instruction by Bach.”

The count was a chronic insomniac and Goldberg’s main task in his household was playing music for him as he whiled away his sleepless nights.

Forkel says that the count once mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like some clavier pieces “of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be cheered up by them on his sleepless nights.”

It seems Bach thought about how he might best fulfil the count’s wishes.

He hit on the idea of a set of variations, “the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation.”

As Forkel says, Bach was incapable of producing anything but a work of art and it was the only extended variations, 30 of them, that he wrote and, observes the biographer, “was probably never so rewarded (financially) for one of his works as for this.”

The tale has been questioned, along with Bach giving the variations to Goldberg who was only 14 when the work was published, although he is said to have been a highly accomplished keyboard player and may given the first performance.

However, the improbable truth may well be in there and, in any case, as a later publisher decided, Goldberg Variations trips more easily off the tongue than Bach’s original title.