Should Bach's Goldberg Variations make you cry?

There was an interesting series on BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music recently, looking at pieces of music which have an incredible emotional impact. It came off the back of a poll by BBC 6 Music asking which songs made people cry and why, and in which, alongside more predictable entries by Leonard Cohen and The Smiths, Bach’s own Goldberg Variations featured rather prominently.

If you scroll down this article you'll find the interview with pianist Angela Hewitt on what the piece means to her and the reaction she has had from people about her recording of the piece - but, admittedly, I was surprised to see it feature.

I’d never considered it a sad piece at all, and I think that comes from its form - it’s not one long piece of music, it’s the Goldberg variations - ostensibly written as a study. It’s hard to separate the backstory of the piece because the backstory explains the title - who’s this Goldberg? Ah, he was the young protégé who used to play the clavier for the count who couldn’t sleep… etc, etc. We don’t even know if the story is true. What we do know is that the variations were intended as a study for clavier and I suppose, in my mind, there is a separation between the dry academia (and crushing boredom, from the musician’s point of view) associated with studies. Minds immediately jump to hours of reluctant scales and study exercises to improve bow control and technique but not to make you cry (not tears borne from a sense of transcendent melancholy, anyway).  

There is also The Goldbergs’ legacy. The piece has very much become known as the example, of how to do variations (or, specifically, Baroque variations). They are like a musical advert for Bach’s skills as a composer. Like others of his pieces - the “musical CV” Brandenburg concertos spring to mind - that isn’t to say for a second that they forgo aural enjoyment at the sake of clever composition, but it’s still interesting to bear in mind that they do, technically, have a purpose. They are not simply art for art’s sake.  


Glenn Gould's much-revered recording of the Goldberg Variations: clever and enjoyable.

There may be something in this idea of legacy, though, in the way that Bach’s music is said to contain “the universe”. Since the day he was actually writing in, people have linked his output to a sense of higher consciousness, a sense of higher being, reaching out of our mortal world and up to the heavens. So from the point of view of being awestruck and lifted out of the everyday by an artistic feat, or sight or sound, maybe you could have a little cry at how wondrous and amazing the piece is, these notes coming out of nowhere and forming this incredible whole, and being moved by it in this way. I think here, we’re either touching on the piece being linked to an incredible situation in which you heard something (like Eric, in the BBC piece) or we’re talking about Stendhal Syndrome. As this admittedly hilarious response to seeing a double rainbow shows, some of us do have that capacity; but I’d guess that this man is in the minority and that only the most overtly spiritual and emotional of us would have this reaction.

It’s a really lovely image and idea but, of course, to some it’s just flowery affected hyperbole, which leaves me wondering one last thing - if the piece was heard out of any context at all, how would it make them feel? Would anyone cry?

Listening to the actual notes, I’m still veering towards no. Firstly there’s the joyous nature of a lot of the variations. Variation 1, one of my favourites (I know, so obvious, but irresistibly true), is pretty much joy unbounded. Whether a pianist or a string player, even looking at the notes you can predict the joy you’ll experience playing those satisfying running scales and arpegggio sequences.

Like this bit right here. OOFT. Forte. That is good, on a violin.

Excerpt from Variation 1.

A lot of Bach is like that to play, hence why people can get it so wrong and go rushing forwards instead of letting each note take its sweet time and become a rounded individual instead of just the forgotten brother or sister of the one next to it (these dodgy allegories are Reason No.2 that I never became a music teacher, Reason No. 1 of course being a lack of talent) but these runs of notes and sequences are particularly satisfying. Yes, it’s a study - and we do need to take into account the differences in playing this on all the different instruments it’s been arranged for, as it’s decidedly harder on a piano with the two hands - but it’s hard to argue with how playful, light and energising Variation 1 sounds

But then there are sad variations. Variation 15 - the andante canone alla Quinta - shifting down as it does to G minor, still retains a study-esque feel which doesn’t translate into the minor. Anything minor of course sounds either mournful or sinister, and Baroque minor music has that heavy, quasi-religious quality to it which comes from the simplicity of tone (in contrast with, say Romantic music). However, in the overall spirit and mood of the piece these minor variations seem like oases - the anomaly rather than the predominant spirit of the whole thing. It’s all subjective, but to me adding this veneer of emotion to it seems almost false; it’s just a variation on the G major. Are we trying to hear more in it than is really there?

This last question is really quite interesting, as it taps into something key behind the Goldberg Variations - ternary patterns for insomnia project, which plays with the concept of what we’re allowed to do, what we should do, when it comes to music - and particularly hallowed, revered music, which has been respectfully interpreted for 300 years.

The above exploration takes context and the notes and adds them together to see which conclusions we could reasonably come to about whether the music inspires tears. Written like this, you see what a ridiculous notion it is - that you could scientifically define exactly what emotional reaction, or even intellectual thought, a bit of music inspires. Of course it’s interesting to theorise on it, but it’s also interesting to let people create their own art from their interpretation. And it’s OK if this interpretation deliberately goes against instinct, or expectation, in order to simply experiment with something new.

That delicious jarring contrast between the formulaic nature of the composition and the notion of experiment which comes from an artist letting his or her imagination completely take over, with no holds barred and no boxes needing to be ticked, is one of the best parts of this new project. This open-mindedness translates to the audience, too; you need to be prepared not only to hear, but to experience Goldberg Variations in a different way, and allow yourself to see what happens. Maybe you will feel a primitive sense of wrongness, or even outrage; maybe you’ll suddenly hate all of Bach’s music; maybe you’ll only ever listen to Bach again whilst dancing; maybe you’ll only ever play the cello again whilst standing up and moving.

Whatever the result is, it doesn’t really matter: the aim in any artistic experiment is simply to  push and prod something, with no concern for the results - and that was achieved.

[Rosie Davies]